By Frank Sabatini Jr.
“This isn’t like the Mexican food up the road,” I said to my companion when tapping into a brittle sheet of rolled, fried cheese the size of our forearms. The appetizer, chicharron de queso, ranks among several dishes at El Charko that are well-known throughout Mexico City but absent along San Diego Avenue in Old Town.
The colorful indoor-outdoor restaurant surfaced more than a year ago in place of Crazee Burger. It’s owned by a family from Mexico City, and based after a restaurant there that is perched beside a pond inhabited by frogs. Hence, the name El Charko, which translates to “the puddle” or “pond,” manager Tony Hinojosa explained while steering us to authentic dishes he termed as “peculiar to San Diego.”
The lacy, fried queso is made with Gouda and Monterey jack cheeses. It closely resembles a Parmesan tuile in flavor and texture – fantastically tangy and extremely fragile — yet five times bigger in this tubular form. Served with a plop of guacamole, it felt as though we were unintentionally damaging an ancient scroll as it broke into pieces from minimal finger pressure.
A menu category titled “alambres” allows you to choose from a variety of proteins sautéed with onions and bell peppers, and served sizzling in a cast-iron skillet.
Fajitas they’re not.
Bits of bacon are hidden within the medley, which adds a dash of smokiness. There’s also a small measure of jack cheese on top. We opted for marinated pork (pastor), flavored here with ginger, paprika and cinnamon. All combined, the ingredients spawned a thin, exotic sauce you won’t find in Mexican kitchens along San Diego’s beaten track. Served with corn or flour tortillas, the dish is an unsung staple in most provinces of Mexico.
After polishing off a bowl of tomato-based tortilla soup containing a halved, peeled avocado, we proceeded to tacos.
One filled with beer-battered fish (probably cod) tasted pedestrian except for its inclusion of chipotle cream sauce, which added a safe zing. Two others filled with different styles of meat, however, could potentially tickle the fancy of those who haven’t dabbled in the burgeoning American-hipster taco movement, which borrows heavily from Mexico City’s food scene.
The “Villamelon” taco features salted, sun-dried beef mixed with chorizo, pork rinds and hot sauce. I’m not sure where the meat catches its rays, or for how long, but it ends up pleasantly chewy and slightly caramelized.
Chorizo and prime steak are combined in the “campechano” taco, although we didn’t detect the chorizo. This was basically a carne asada taco with cubed meat sporting familiar whispers of garlic, citrus and cumin. Regretfully, I had somehow overlooked the smoked pork chop taco accented with bacon and onions — something I haven’t yet seen north of the border.
Other precious finds include an appetizer of grilled hot peppers and onions; cactus salad; zucchini flower or huitlacoche-mushroom quesadillas; and the El Charko burrito stuffed with French fries, pastor, beans, cheese and sour cream, should you over-indulge in the house margaritas, green sours or tempranillo wine.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.