Current politics aside, I tend to view our neighbor Mexico as a happy place — happy people, happy music, happy food. And so it was that with a cheerful fire burning on a raised hearth, a gracious hostess seated us in a nearby booth and our server Jose, with a smiling face, handed us menus at El Charro Mexican Grill.
Situated at the far right end of the Peter Harris Plaza with a string of other restaurants and shops, El Charro has multiple spaces for parking.
After beverages were ordered (when in a Mexican restaurant, order margaritas served in bathtubs with salted rims), out-of-town friend Gail and I studied the menu as if we were preparing to take the law boards. The dozen or so categories were not unusual, but most were populated by at least eight choices. It was the combinations and variations that slowed us down. Some dishes, like fajitas ($12-$15.95) are grouped by preparation: meals are served in a sizzling skillet with Spanish rice, fried beans, guacamole, salad, cheese, sour cream and three flour tortillas.
Gail opted for chicken chipotle avocado soup ($5.25) as an appetizer, and chicken and shrimp fajitas ($14.95) as her entrée. The soup was composed of a flavorful chicken broth with large pieces of chicken, avocado, celery, carrots, tomatoes, scallions and cilantro.
Her fajitas arrived at the table steaming and sizzling as promised. Tender sliced chicken and shrimp were grilled with red, yellow and green peppers, onions and tomatoes. The sliced onions were slightly charred from their exposure to the intense heat of the black skillet, creating a slightly caramelized sugar flavor. The placing of chopped red tomatoes, guacamole, refried beans with pale yellow melted cheese, Spanish rice and sour cream provided a colorful and flavorful pallet to accompany the fajitas.
My black bean soup ($4.79) differed from the thick Puerto Rican concoction I have tried to duplicate for years. Nor was it topped with chopped sweet onion and hard-cooked eggs. Nevertheless, the soup was loaded with flavor from beans, of course, cilantro, carrots, red onions and Mexican cheese.
I am fond of mole and made it once. Labor-intensive, the Mexican sauce requires dozens of ingredients. So when in a Mexican restaurant, I always look for any dish incorporating the word “mole.” I searched the menu for the magic word, but did not find it. Jose pointed to a brief section titled “combination dinners,” which are served with Spanish rice and refried beans, and a choice of salsa verde, poblano or ranchero sauce. Jose assured me I could have my two different items (I chose a cheese quesadilla and a chicken quesadilla for $9.25) with mole despite the fact that it did not appear on the menu. Only salsa verde, poblano and ranchero sauces were listed, and none of them included chocolate as an ingredient.
Dark chocolate makes mole dark brown. Crushed tortillas give it texture. Assorted Mexican chilies provide heat. A magical blend of spices provided overtones of flavor. The result is far richer than the insipid reddish sauce that covered my quesadillas. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t mole. I’m hoping my disappointment was caused by a mere lack of communication.
We moved happily on to dessert. Two of the four offerings stood out: churros (a photo on the table showed four, but the actual dessert included only three for $4) and flan ($4).
Churros are fritters which resemble small, fluted logs dipped in sugar (and sometimes a touch of cinnamon). Ours were a trio served on a small, cheerful yellow plate and corralling a scoop of whipped cream-topped vanilla ice cream. Superfluous drizzles of chocolate sauce and a maraschino cherry topped the dessert.
It was one of those melt-in-your-mouth confections that brought you near tears when you discovered you had landed your last bite.
The flan was surrounded by liquid satin caramel sauce on a turquoise dish. A spritz of whipped cream and a cherry adorned the firm flan. Unlike the sugary churros, the flan was mild, slightly flavored with vanilla, softening the edges of the more spicy food that had proceeded dessert.
A moderately sized venue, El Charro Mexican Grill features approximately 15 tables and booths in an L-shaped configuration around a 10-seat bar. The bar and diners are separated by a semi wall (“Wall? Did I say wall?), which is adequate to separate the two areas, but not enough to divide the space into two rooms.
Like the apocryphal story of Stone Soup, the tale of Mole Sauce involves the cooperation of citizens of a small (Mexican) town adding ingredients to a large pot to prepare a meal for a visiting clergyman. It is a lesson from which we all might continue to benefit.
El Charro Mexican Grill
WHERE: 952 Troy-Schenectady Road (Peter Harris Plaza), Latham, NY 12110; 518-608-5842; www.elcharromexgrill.com/
WHEN: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $42.24 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: daily lunch and dinner specials, full bar with special cocktails, large lot parking, major credit cards accepted, noise level permits conversation, accessible, vegetarian dishes, pickup, delivery via Grubhub, reservations accepted.