The Weekly Eater


Maria Reyes brings out a plate of carne asada, grilled steak served with rice, beans and salad, as well as a plate of tacos.

Simple fare and low
prices are the appeal
of El Charro

The name El Charro leaves no doubt as to what its menu is like. The words translate as "humble" or "the cowboy" and are to Tex-Mex cuisine what a diner is to American cuisine or a bistro to French cuisine.

Simple fare and low prices are the draw, and on any night you'll find a mix of families, friends in the mood for a fiesta, and the sort of couples who've been together for a while, for whom going out to dinner doesn't require getting dressed to impress.

The restaurant (no relation to Kailua's former El Charro Avitia) is on Sand Island Access Road, but don't let the industrial surroundings deter you from making the trip. El Charro is a rarity in a building dominated by takeout, fast-food joints -- a full-size restaurant that actually has a sense of decor.

Step inside, and at your left is a trompe l'oeil mural of a Jalisco church. At your right is an arched, adobe-style entryway into a dining room with walls painted in multiple colors, and piñatas and papel picado (Mexican cut-paper art) dangling overhead. You need to show up fairly early for dinner, or this room will be closed and you'll be relegated to the takeout area.

I can't imagine starting a day with tacos, but that is what they have, beginning 7 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 8 a.m. Sundays. They also have more American-style breakfasts of ham, sausage or bacon with eggs, and this is one of the few places qualified to offer huevos rancheros ($6.95).

DUE TO THE heavy lunch traffic, this is one of the few Mexican restaurants around town that offers tortas, or sub sandwiches ($5.95). All feature a thin layer of sour cream with shredded lettuce, tongue-awakening pico de gallo with its handful of diced chili peppers and your choice of meats such as grilled steak and chorizo. A favorite is the jamon, or ham, sandwich. The puerco (pork), however, was a disappointment -- a smattering of tough pan-fried nuggets.

This is San Antonio-style cooking, so things look a little different 'round here. You'll find guacamole ($3.95) has as much, or maybe more, tomatoes (largely diced) and onions (largely sliced) as avocado.

That area north of the Rio Grande also fancied itself the birthplace of nachos ($5.95), though leave it to outsiders to get fancy with jalapeños, olives and other ingredients. Here, it's just basic tortilla chips, beans, chicken or ground beef, and cheese.

Of course, meat plays a big role in Tex-Mex cooking, which adapted humble Mexican ingredients to suit big Texan tastes.

So you'll find bistek charro ($8.95) served in an earthy red sauce of tomatoes, serrano peppers, onion, tomatoes and cilantro, served with rice and refried beans. The sauce compensates for the rather dry beef, overcooked due to having been cut into 2- and 3-inch pieces.

If that's not manly enough for you, opt for carne asada ($8.95), a combination of grilled steak and onions. Again, the steak is dry, having been cut into pieces for quick cooking.

Chalupas are Mexican pizzas, but you might think of them as open-face tacos featuring cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, avocado, beans and your choice of chicken, pork or ground beef. You get two of them for $5.95, and they'll happily let you have two choices of meats if you can't make up your mind.

Much of this is rather unremarkable, but the best El Charro has to offer are a generous order of shrimp fajitas ($10.95) and the carne de puerco en chile rojo ($7.95), cubed pork simmered in an herb-filled red chili sauce.

The food is filling, so you probably won't need dessert of churros or other sugar-topped bread, which most gringos don't get anyway. One person I know described churros, or Mexican doughnuts, as the "bread equivalent of pork rinds."


111 Sand Island Access Road / (808) 845-9637

Food StarStar1/2

Service StarStarStar

Ambience StarStarStar

Value StarStarStar

Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Less than $10 per person for lunch; about $20 for two for dinner

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

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