El Charro Café in Tucson has a couple claims to fame. At 94 years old, it’s the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same familia. More controversially, it claims to be the birthplace of one of Arizona’s most iconic dishes: the chimichanga.
Family legend has it that El Charro’s founding chef/owner Monica Flin (Tía Monica to her sobrinos, or nieces and nephews) accidentally dropped a burro in hot oil when she was frying tacos. A salty Spanish slang exclamation began to spew from her mouth, “Chi-,” before she caught herself and, realizing she was surrounded by her sobrinos, changed course and yelled “Chimichanga!” (flustered Spanish for “thingamajig”) instead.
Today, El Charro’s chimichangas are customer, family and press favorites, with the carne seca chimi garnering adoration from Bon Appétit, Gourmet, the New York Times and USA Today, which named it one of the top 50 plates in the U.S. Ray Flores, son of current chef Carlotta Dunn Flores (grandniece of Tía Monica), grew up eating every variation, from apple and cherry dessert versions to his childhood favorite, mini bean chimis with sour cream and cheddar.
El Charro’s chimichanga crown has its share of naysayers – namely, Valley chain Macayo’s, which claims founder Woody Johnson intentionally created the chimichanga. Flores is good-natured about the dispute.
“I think the debate is great. It’s sort of like the awesome U of A vs. ASU rivalry. It keeps us motivated to do better,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’ve been open since the early 1920s, and with Monica’s French background, we just know how much pan-frying items and her technique are tied to inventing this awesome dish, even if originally by accident!”
He’s served countless celebrities El Charro’s fried delights over the years, “but my favorite story was serving one to Christie Brinkley some 25-plus years ago when I was working as a server while in college,” Flores says. “She looked great then, and maybe the chimi is the reason she looks so good now in her 60s!”
If she looks half as good as El Charro when she’s 94, she’ll be una señora suerte indeed.
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