Remakes are among the hardest movies to make.
The same goes for restaurants, as Benjamin Seabury discovered. Like generations of Lamorindans, the tireless East Bay restaurateur was dining at El Charro with his extended family when he heard that the old-school Mexican destination, famous for its generous margaritas and free fries with “El Butter” Charro”, was going to close its doors after more than 70 years in Lafayette. His mother-in-law, half-jokingly, told him, “Benjamin, you have to buy this place.
Not wanting to let one of his favorite places slip away on that good night, he did just that. Seabury has partnered with Jon Guhl’s 1100 Group – which operates several local restaurants, including Little Star and Star pizzerias – to buy the name and recipes from El Charro in a bid to preserve an East Bay dining institution for the future generations. Unfortunately, Seabury soon discovered that the original El Charro frame would be extremely expensive to bring up to current building codes. So he embarked on a journey to preserve the fiery family spirit of El Charro in a new setting – in the former Maria Maria restaurant space in Walnut Creek – while retaining as much of the original menu as possible while putting up-to-date food to contemporary cuisine. standards. He also gave the restaurant a (slightly) new name, El Charro 1947, a reference to the year the original was founded.
A big part of Seabury’s vision was to keep comfort food family-friendly and unpretentious, a throwback to the Americanized “vintage Mexican” genre – think combo plates, ooey-gooey cheese enchiladas and oversized margaritas – it was standard fare in the United States decades ago.
“For the last Mexican restaurant [our restaurant group] made in Sacramento, we brought in a great chef from Mexico City, and it was great but not accessible—[El Charro is] the opposite of that,” Seabury says. “I sat down with the chef and culinary director and worked to tailor the menu to feel vintage and old-school. But it’s not supposed to be fancy or kitsch. It’s legit, and we want the food that comes out of it to match the energy we put into it.
For ambiance, Seabury took inspiration from Mexican restaurants of the 1940s and 1950s. This meant reviving the original cursive font and evocative iconography of the original El Charro on the classic three-pronged menu (the iconic sign of the Lafayette location, preserved in the Walnut Creek bar, is an example of a redesign done in the 1980s). In the spirit of modernizing the concept, Seabury took inspiration from Los Angeles restaurants of the same era like El Coyote and El Cholo, which is reflected in oversized black-and-white photos of Angelenos driving cars and trucks. inflated bikes in the main dining room. . (Seabury describes the car culture born in SoCal of Mexican Americans as the modern equivalent of the charros, or glamorous cowboys, of the past.)
It’s been a delicate balancing act, perhaps the best example of which is the restaurant’s famous El Charro butter. The garlic blue cheese dip, supplied free with a bottomless supply of fries, was El Charro’s signature calling card. It was also costing the restaurant more than $500,000 a year, Seabury realized from consulting the books, which he couldn’t afford in today’s hyper-competitive market. Instead, he got to work updating the dip with as light a touch as possible while using ingredients he could find behind it, serving it with fresh homemade tortilla chips for 4 $. Customer reaction has been mixed – while many are thrilled to have El Charro butter back in their lives, Yelp reviews are peppered with comments about having to pay for what was previously a freebie. Likewise, margaritas are now made with premium tequila, but are necessarily smaller than the famous oversized containers of the past.
And so it is at El Charro 1947. Seen in a vacuum, it can easily be enjoyed and enjoyed as a fun and friendly throwback to vintage American Mexican restaurants before Maria Maria updated the formula. . But like many seriously executed movie remakes, the current product can’t help but be experienced through the prism of the original. But before you write that sarcastic Yelp review, give El Charro 1947 a shot.
First, the food concept is well executed, filled with good, and sometimes better than good, versions of American Mexican standards. For starters, go ahead and bite the bullet on that $4 for El Charro fries, salsa, and butter — it gets you a basket full of fries, and a little of that tangy buttery dip goes a long way. If you’re looking for a milder chip dip experience, consider queso fundido, a decidedly retro neon yellow cheese sauce with the consistency of stadium nachos, spiked with chorizo and pico de gallo – c is a guilty pleasure that the whole family can dig into. Mexican cornbread is another piece of comfort. Based on a recipe from Seabury’s father, the airy bread is infused with the aroma of roasted poblano peppers, puffed up with real corn and cheddar and pepper jack cheese, and topped with a decadent crema sauce, just a little spicy. Yum.
The entrance section turned out to be more hazardous. I’m a sucker for a good spongy enchilada drizzled with sauce. El Charro – both black mole and “verde” suiza – came out drier and more overly composed than I would have preferred. The carnitas, on the other hand, were excellent, offering generous portions of tender and succulent slow-braised pork. Another winner (and holdover from the original menu) is the El Charro relleno, sporting a fried green chili stuffed with melted and beaten cheese with an unusual flaky, mealy crust. Most main courses are served with solid renditions of classic red-tinted Mexican rice and black or refried beans.
Perhaps best of all is the setting, which benefits from a grand but smart Maria Maria layout, offering choose-your-own dining options that include open tables in the center, cozy booths around the perimeter, and a bar. separate region. Christmas-style lights add a festive atmosphere, as does colorful bric-a-brac transferred from Lafayette.
No, it’s not the original. But take a sip of your margarita – they’re smaller but pack a hell of a punch – squint a little, and you’ll still feel some of that original El Charro spirit. elcharro47.com.