If there is one cuisine that has had the greatest impact on American tastes and eating habits within the past 50 years, it is unquestionably Mexican. Mexican cookery enjoys one of the widest repertoires of any of the Western cuisines, with many regional variations on the main theme.
We are fortunate to have one of the best Mexican restaurants that I’ve ever enjoyed right here in Johnson City and also in Elizabethton. Formerly known as El Torito (translation: “The Little Bull) Johnson City’s El Charolais is tucked in next to the Kroger supermarket on West State of Franklin, while Elizabethton’s is on Broad Street near the Doe River. Both operations are run by the Jauregui family, of whom Jose-Luis Jauregui is “padrone.”
The Johnson City facility was remodeled and expanded about a year ago to add more seating, a bar of comfortable dimension and an equally comfortable semi-secluded patio for dining out of doors. The menu has expanded as well, with several new offerings, some excellent seafood, luscious soups and entrees that are sure to end your habit of saying “I’ll have the number 2 dinner, please.”
El Charolais is a favorite haunt of the dine-around bunch; two or more of us can be seen there on a regular basis for lunch or supper. A recent trip found all of us seated around one of Jauregui’s custom-built booth tables discussing the latest updates to the menu.
The Dieter ordered a Torito Pina ($12.95) half a fresh pineapple filled with a special fajitas mix. The Carnivore decided on a platter of Fajitas El Torito ($11.95); steak, chicken, roasted pork, chorizo sausage, broiled shrimp, grilled onions and tomatoes. The dish includes either beans or rice and a “fajita fixin’s” dish of lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and pico di gallo relish.
Our Retiree opted for the Grilled Vegetable Quesadilla ($6.25) garnished with lettuce, sliced tomato and sour cream. My dining partner ordered a Carnitas platter ($9.45), lean pork cubed and slow-roasted with El Charolais’ own spice medley and served with rice or beans, lettuce, sliced tomato and sour cream. Feeling a bit under the weather I chose the Vuelve a la Vida, ($13.95) a spicy seafood creation.
Our dinners being prepared to order gave us time to sample the house salsa that accompanies the fresh complimentary tortilla chips. The salsa comes in two varieties I call Hot and Not, with the “Not” being a smooth blend of ripe tomatoes, chopped onions, cilantro, and a touch of garlic. Spicy, but not much heat.
The “Hot” salsa at El Charolais can surprise you. It is just the thing to wake up dozing taste buds for the meal that follows. I’ve a theory that Jauregui’s chefs sometimes make the Hot salsa mix extra spicy just to see if the customers are paying attention.
Hey ho, our food arrived and we all swapped around, sampling each other’s entrees. The Retiree’s quesadilla was packed with grilled onions, peppers, sliced tomato and melted queso blanco that added a mellow contrast to the dish. The Carnivore’s Fajitas El Torito arrived on a sizzling platter stacked high with meats and veggies. A side of rice and some fresh flour tortillas had our friend fully occupied for the rest of the meal.
My partner’s Carnitas pork would be a serious contender in any area barbecue cook-off. Fall-apart tender and spiced to perfection, the dish had all of us sneaking tastes from her platter. Our Dieter’s Torito Pina got the most comment and reaction from the other restaurant patrons. It is a spectacular entrée; the “bowl” is half a pineapple, hollowed out and filled with a savory fajitas and diced pineapple mixture. Yes, grilled onions, peppers, tomato and pineapple taste just fine together. You’ll want to scrape out the “bowl” after you finish so you don’t lose any scrumptious bit of it.
Then there’s my Vuelve a la Vida. Roughly translated as “Return to Life,” and used as a tasty folk remedy and hangover cure, it is proof-positive that Mexico has one of the premier global cuisines for seafood. Part soup and part stew, this dish is packed with fish, shellfish and crustaceans in a very spicy red broth. Indeed, my bowl appeared to have half a good-sized snow crab trying to escape when the server set it in front of me. In addition to the crab, I found steamed mussels, octopus, diced mild whitefish, good-sized shrimp, oysters and some clams. The hearty seafood stock is reinforced with onions, tomato, lime juice and some spicy peppers that had at least one Habanero in their number, all slow-simmered for a good long time.
First-timers with this dish should be careful with the broth. I tried spooning in a good mouthful and got a scorched tongue for my pains. Alternating sips of iced tea, beer or horchata, a rice-based beverage ,will dampen the blaze quite nicely.
El Charolais has some yummy desserts, and makes a big deal out of birthdays and anniversaries; exactly how big I leave to your imagination. It is just another example of how much the staff of El Charolais treat their customers like family. You’d expect nothing less.
El Charolais has two locations:
1805 West State of Franklin Road
501 Broad St.
Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.—10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.—10:30 p.m.
Credit cards accepted