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El Charco en Chula Vista

El Charco is what happens when local lamb barbacoa guru (Paco) from Aqui es Texcoc teams up with the folks who own and operate a small chain of taquerias called Charco de las Ranas in Mexico City. Having eaten at both Aqui es Texcoco and Charco de las Ranas, I was curious to see what their love child would produce. Turns out some pretty decent food.

One of the menu items I had been enthralled with at Charco de las Ranas was their Chicarrón de Queso, a Mexican variant of the Italian frico, only bigger, a lot, lot bigger. A giant handful of cheese goes onto the plancha to melt and develop a crispy, crusty golden underside. With a few deft moves the taquerso would roll it and flip it out onto a plate for service. There's only 1 taquero at Charco in CV but he did a quite respectable version. The cheese was melty and crispy all at once, tho' a little bit oilier than the D.F. version. I'm guessing that may be due to the differences in the cheese used. The Chicarrón comes on an oblong platter with a side of chunky guacamole - think mashed avos enhanced with pico - and is enough to feed 2 people generously. It's a bargain at $4.

The menu is an mix of Queso Fundidos, Alambres, Tacos, Quesadillas, Sopes and a few entree-style plates.

Alambres are, esentially brochettas and come as bistec (steak), pastor (pastor), chuleta (pork chop, chopped), chuleta ahumada (smoked pork chop), costilla (pork rib), pollo (chicken) or chorizo. Accompanying them on the skewer are bell peppers, onions and tocino (bacon). All for $8. We didn't try these, but I probably will on another visit.

Tacos come in the same varieties listed above plus arrachera, another cut of steak. They are on small tortillas and pretty naked; just the meat and the tortilla waiting for the diner to garnish them al gusto (how ever you want) from the condiment tray. There are 4 table sauces, a thin avocado salsa that's a little on the astringent side, a salsa verde with a pleasant bit of heat, a soupy salsa fresca and a spicy, hot salsa rojo. The avocado salsa is forgettable (and I seem to recall it was pretty forgettable in DF as well), the salsa fresca marred by underripe winter tomatoes, but the salsas rojo and verde were quite nice and a good accent to any of the meats. Also included as part of the condiments were lime wedges, radishes, chopped onion, cilantro and chile. Most of the tacos are $2.00 each, the smoked pork chop is $2.10 and the arrachera $3.00. An "order" of tacos is 3 each and most orders are $5.80. Once again the smoke pork chop is $6.00 for 3 and it's going to set you back $8.00 for 3 arrachera tacos.

An interesting feature I can't recall seeing around town is the option to order any of the taco meats by the kilo (2.2 lbs). This is actually pretty common in Mexico (especially at places specializing in carnitas) where you simply order the meat bulk and they bring you baskets of warm corn tortillas, the condiments and everyone at the table digs in.

The potato flautas from Aqui es Texcoco turn up on the menu along with chicken or bean flautas, 3 for $6. All of them are garnished with shredded lettuce, crema, cotija and salsa.

I have always been a sucker for sopes but have been rouitinely disappointed by the ones I've tried here locally. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I actually ordered the sopes and I am so happy to report that they were really good. We had 2 sopes de chuleta (pork chop), 1 with chorizo and 1 al pastor. The masa base was appropriately thick with a crispy outer shell that shattered when bitten, best of all the masa was not a dense leaden mass as is what so often happens to it. Liked the pastor, loved the chuleta, the pork chop being done a la plancha (on the flat top) with seared spots and tender meat. But my favorite hands down was the chorizo. Probably the best chorizo I've had in San Diego. Flavorful, rich, chunky and not greasy. I would eat it in anything in which it is offered. I don't know if it's made in house or something Paco brings across the border or has made to specs here in SD. If you like chorizo and you go to El Charco, try it. 3 sopes per order for $6.25 and you can mix and match, all 3 don't have to be the same.

Quesadillas can be made with any of the meat choices listed above for $2.75. The cheese quesadillas are $2.50 and rajas (roasted chile strips), huitlacoche, mushrooms and calabaza/zucchini are among the choices. A cousin to the quesadilla - the sincronizada - is also offered here. I've also not seen much of this menu item around SD. The sincronizada is ham and cheese sandwiched in a flour tortilla and then griddled until the cheese is ooey, gooey and melty. $2.25 for these.

We didn't try it, but I did notice that Niederfrank's is making a special jamacia sorbet just for El Charco. I'd love to try that :-)

El Charco has only been open about a month and I think they've probably still got a few bugs to work out. The soup and at least 2 of the salsas could have been better. The pastor was good but didn't wow me, I've had better. I'd like to see the flavors developed a little better. But the place is spotless, well lit, the staff friendly and bi-lingual and everything is made to order. Based on how good and how well run Aqui es Texcoco is, I suspect that El Charco will improve as it gets more experience under it's belt.

Is this the best Mexican food in SD, naw. It won't blow you away and it's not a religious experience. It's just some good, well priced Mexican food served by very nice and dedicated people.

El Charo Mexico City Style Tacos is located at 1310 3rd St in Chula Vista. It's basically at the corner of 3rd and Palomar, about 50 ft south of Palomar on the west side of the street. Easy parking.

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  1. Thanks for that, DD, good stuff!

    1. Nice review, I'll keep this place in mind whenever I'm in chula vista and not eating usual filipino food.

          1. Paco is quite talented, I've always enjoyed Aqui Es Texcoco. Now I have another place to try, thanks.

            3 Replies
            1. re: cstr

              I don't think the food here is at the Aqui es Texcoco level yet, but I'm banking on Paco's proven track record to make it happen.

              You'll recognize a number of the menu items (hello nopales) as being from AeT, but I really wish he'd bring over his salsa macha (the one he calls salsa negro). That stuff is sooooo good.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                I checked for a website, none? Last time I went to Aqui, I asked Paco for half kilo of lamb barbacoa and we had tortilla's and all the fix'ns and sauces, excellent. He is talented a young man! Hope this new venture does well, I don't mind the trip for his chow.

                1. re: cstr

                  There actually is a web site but it's like so many of the Baja restaurants. They simply have a page marker on line with pertinent into like address, phone and hours and the icons for Twitter and FB.

                  El Charco does have a FB page with photos and a little bit more. Mostly in Spanish, but I suspect that's probably not too much of a hinderance for you? There is a link to their web page on their FB About link, but you won't find much on it, and definitely, not the menu.

                  Paco is, indeed, talented. El Charco has only been open since Dec. 6th (according to their FB page) and they've still got some work to do, but from what I ate yesterday, they appear to be on the right track. The chicarrón de queso and the sopes were definitely good. The table in back of us were having tacos and they looked and smelled good too.

            2. Love they have bean flautas...wooo hooo!

              1. Yeah, babe! I go twice a week, it keeps getting better. My favorite is the al pastor sope. That queso is pretty lethal too. This is good, well prepared food in a good environment, as you say. Paco is my man. I do agree he needs to feature his black sauce here. They make a good cup of coffee and the flan is superb. I do love the jamaica and also, the more filling,horchata. They're not the watery pre-mixed stuff. He'll probably have liquor license here soon. They're busy on weekends and the week night traffic is picking up. I expect Paco to add other popular items later on. He knows what we like. I'll join you whenever you get down this way.

                1. Really nice. Fried cheese is delightful. Short rib sopes. Squash blossom tacos. Good agua frescas. Bottled beers. So much to like here. We'll be back.

                  It looks like a new Tacos El Gordo opening nextdoor? That's weird.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: y6y6y6

                    So glad you liked it. For only being open a month I think they're doing a really nice job. Had I known the costilla was a short rib and not more pork I would have tried that one instead of the pastor

                    The friend with who/m I had lunch with at El Charco said that Tacos El Gordo had been there a while and it had never opened...or that at least she had never seen it open, and it wasn't the day I ate at El Charco either.

                  2. I unfortunately haven't tried Aqui es Texcoco so I can't compare, but from what I tried it was pretty good. I can't really compare this to other San Diego Mexican because most other San Diego Mexican isn't...well Mexican.

                    We started out with the Queso con Chorizo which we enjoyed thanks to the aforementioned fresh Chorizo. My mother had a Pollo Asado(grilled chicken) plate which I could visually tell was extremely tender even compared to super cocina. It came with grilled scallions and a whole cactus leaf which reminds me of a place in tijuana we frequent. I proceeded to have 6 tacos(plan was to share some but my mother was full halfway into her plate :o) We got 2 Arrachera(skirt steak), 2 Al Pastor and 2 smoked pork chop. The Al Pastor was as mentioned 'ok', Arrachera was 'ok' as well as I enjoy skirt steak but this tasted like a lighter version of Carne Asada and the smoked pork chop was by far the best of the ones I ordered evidenced by the limited garnishes I put on. The sauces were just as DD said, I smelled them all, sampled them all, then proceeded to only use the spicy rojo, chopped onions/cilantro and lime. I've had A LOT of Horchata as I get one 90% of the time at Mexican and this was completely different in a good way, most Horchata tastes like a pre-made Horchata mix. This tasted relatively freshly made. We didn't get the Niederfrank's ice cream as we headed there afterwards anyway.

                    Conclusion: I would first try Texcoco before I go back but it's definitely a place for us to try again. I was hoping this would be better than a casual taco shop(la chuleta) in tijuana so that we could get our fix without border hassle but I can't compare to the country of it's origin.

                    Side note, I was disappointed to not see any aguas frescas such as honeydew or cantaloupe but I probably either overlooked it or it could prob be asked off the menu.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: polldeldiablo

                      Aqui es Texcoco is totally different as it specializes in lamb barbacoa. The reference to the two is that Paco is the owner of both restaurants. Aqui es Texcoco is well run with consistently good barbacoa. I think El Charco shows a lot of the same potential.

                      Too early in the season for any of the agua de melons. Melon is out of season.

                      1. re: polldeldiablo

                        Went Saturday, First; the place is new and immaculate, the service was very good, we had a nice young server. The star of the food was the Chorizo Sopes, totally light, crisp and airy but, the chorizo was killer some of the best I've had. I could have eaten several orders of those sopes. Next was the Chuleta tacos, for my personal taste, they were a bit salty but quite tender. The sauces were very Aqui es Texcoco and tasty. They have a good selection of Mex bottled beer. A great find DD, I'm sure this will be a success for Paco.

                      2. Oh my. Just ate here. LOVE!!! Will post more later after my cat nap.

                        1. Okay, I am finally coherent enough to post about our excellent lunch at El Charco.

                          We started with the Chicarron de Queso, served with guacamole. (See DD's description above). The cheese was formed into a perfectly sculpted, delicate cylinder. The crisp texture was balanced by the rich savory flavor of the cheese. We loved this. The guacamole was fresh and delicious. We happily dove into the various salsas served with our meal, dousing the crisp cheese with each of the wonderful distinct sauce.

                          I had the pastor Alambres with cheese, topped with green bell pepper and onion, and served over fresh corn tortillas. The pastor meat was seasoned perfectly, not salty or overly greasy, despite the presence of the wonderful cheese.

                          My husband had 3 tacos, chorizo, bbq pork, and the beef. He loved all three, but star of that show was the bbq pork taco. Topped with pineapple, the range of flavors in this tiny gem was a thing of beauty.

                          I had the Pecan pudding, which was a served in a tiny cup, and with good reason. This pudding was a rich and sweet finish to my spicy meal. Husband had the rice pudding, which was surprisingly light and airy, and not sweet.

                          Wonderful meal. We will return.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Dagney

                            Would I steer you wrong on Mexican food ;-D. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

                            Arroz con leche when it's made well is a wonder. It should never be cloyingly sweet and dense. I love it when the milk base is cooked with some lime peel giving it just a hint of citrus to counter the dairy.

                            I'm glad someone finally tried the alambre. I thought they sounded really good on the menu, but I was really into the sopes.

                            1. re: DiningDiva

                              Is Arroz con leche specifically separate from most saturated sugar rice puddings or are you just describing a experience where it was good when it wasn't saturated in sugar. I ask because I recently asked what Arroz con leche was in a restaurant and when I found out it was rice pudding, I immediately thought of the overly sweet rice pudding in Chinese dessert or Indian sweets and decided against it for that reason.

                              1. re: polldeldiablo

                                A number of Mexican desserts fall into the tooth achingly sweet category. Arroz con leche is not one of them. I was not describong a one off type of experience. It is a pleasantly sweet dessert, not an aggressively sweet one. I also prefer the consistency to be somewhat thin than pudding.

                                Just remember there are as many versions of arroz con leche in Mexico as there are abuelitas making it, which is to say millions. This is comfort food for many Mexicans.

                                  1. re: RB Hound

                                    You did indeed :-). I like mine a little looser than in that photo tho'

                          2. I love it when old threads get revived so I can see what I've missed. Nice review...you told me everything I want to know DD. Can't wait to try it!