Written by Bryce Hagan
Rising like a pink-and-turquoise mirage out of the sweltering central Texas heat, El Charrito is an oasis of culinary comfort for those Tex-Mex refugees who, after seeking respite in the Dos Salsas or (dare I say it) Chipotles of the world, find Georgetown’s selection to be severely lacking when concerning the national (i.e. Texan) cuisine.
In an era of overprocessed, overpriced, and underappreciated Mexican food, El Charrito is one of the few local establishments to inhabit that sublime area somewhere between the roadside taqueria and the mom-and-pop diner; a cherished haunt for expatriated San Antonians like myself with cherished memories of a hundred El Charritos by other names that populate the streets of my hometown.
Since 1995, El Charrito (which I’m told is Spanish for “The Charrito”) has been offering passage to old Mexico with fresh ingredients and simple dishes prepared in an unfussy, consistent tradition. But you won’t need a passport to reach this gastronomic destination, which lies on Austin Avenue just north of the city square.
Nor will you need a big budget, because El Charrito manages to keep portions big and prices low, with most dinner plates falling in between 8 and 12 dollars. The menu is instantly recognizable, featuring the expected staples from enchiladas to gorditas to fajita plates and a respectable selection of tacos all day long.
The breakfast tacos in particular are some of the best this reviewer has had in Georgetown, and the convenient take out window and 99 cent price tag makes them an attractive alternative to the Commons’ breakfast choices. Off-menu lunch and dinner specials are also a great deal for the impoverished student, with many plates starting at 5.99 or less.
For those of the vegetarian persuasion, the cheese enchiladas suizas or nacho appetizers are sure bets, but don’t expect to find heart-healthy wraps, salads or other faux-fare in the increasingly common bourgeois Austin aesthetic of Mexican eateries. No, this is your parents’ Mexican food, and it’s not afraid of using a little pig lard or the occasional chicken bone to get at the heart of what this cuisine is really about.
Most dishes are accompanied by that holy trinity of rice, refried or charro beans and a guacamole salad, with bottomless chips and salsa naturally. But there are some unique and refreshingly authentic choices as well, from the pounded tampicania skirt steak to a selection of Mexican sodas (which, if you’ve had it before, is distinctly different from our own American Coca-Cola experience).
But, like most dining experiences, the essence of El Charrito is in its atmosphere, and it was that very ineffable quality that motivated me to seek it out in the first place.
I spent my first months as a student in Georgetown in a kind of culinary exile; unable to satisfy that craving for authentic Mexican food that had sustained and nourished me in my wandering youth. I was thus confined to a tacophiles’ Purgatory, attempting to find comfort in the inconsistent, undercooked, and overpriced Taco Cabanas or (in moments of weakness) Taco Bells available to me.
Knowing full well that such a respectable, indeed noble, cultural tradition was not meant to be so unceremoniously and industrially churned out by stoned teenagers for the appeasement of the drive-through masses, I had to find another way.
And, much like the Hero Brothers Hunahpu and Xblanque in the Mayan epic of the Popul Vuh, I emerged from this dark, gastrointestinal Xibalba to find an establishment that could slake my ever-increasing hunger for that true Tex-Mex experience. Once I found El Charrito, tucked in a residential block of Austin Avenue previously unknown to me, I knew that my search was over.
The initial appeal of this restaurant comes from its definitively ”hole-in-the-wall” appearance, or perhaps it’s “hole-in-the-wall” reputation, but I wouldn’t relegate it to that somewhat derogatory classification so often reserved for subjects of local news investigations and unmarked strip-center Asian eateries.
Though it does admittedly evoke some of the charms of this class of restaurant, especially the fact that it actually appears to have once been one of those aforementioned Asian eateries: Chinese character patterns adorn the chairs, and, until recently, an Asian-style tiger painting hung from its walls.
And the arrangement is comfortable intimate, with something around 20 tables inside and a small front patio with about 5 tables, making El Charrito best for lunch or an early dinner. You’re never far from the kitchen, and by that same token service is quick, friendly, and always nearby. You are also never too far from the ever-present telenovellas playing on TVs that share the wall with an assortment of folksy-art paintings and photographs, which can only add to the homey flavor of the food being served.
El Charrito is a perfect destination without having to spend too many a peso or deal with a crowded or pushy atmosphere. Their breakfast tacos and daily specials are especially worth the trip, but, in the famous words of Levar Burton, “you don’t have to take my word for it.”