Make the trip to Taco Town by way of Essex

At first glance, The Essex, a stately restaurant on Main Street in Centerbook, hardly seems home base to a bustling cantina. Squint a bit, and you’ll see a colorful sign for Los Charros Cantina, with an arrow pointing to the back of the building. That is where you’ll find a hidden fiesta — and the fare is definitely worth a celebration.

Fans of (good) Mexican food in our region have to travel to get the good stuff. At least I do, since I’m nowhere near Milagro in Stonington, Baja’s in Orange, or one of three Bartacos in Connecticut. So color me thrilled to have a new source of authentic Mexican fare (and great margaritas; $8) within a few miles of the homestead.

The menu at Los Charros is taco-focused with a nice selection of small plates and appetizers. Typically, the menu also includes a few large-plate entrees that reflect the culinary quest of the cantina (Pan Seared Local Fluke Veracruzano, $18, among them). All items are prepared with ingredients made in-house or sourced as locally or responsibly as possible, and you will definitely taste the difference.

Now, it’s easy to fill up on the small-plate/apps items, so pace yourself if you’re looking to visit Taco Town. We did not take that advice on a recent visit and started with a bowl of Pozole ($7) and Chiliquillas Verde ($12; also available with a red “Rojo” sauce).

We were tempted to add in the Queso Fundido with chorizo ($10) this time around, since we’d tried it a few visits ago and enjoyed it down to the last shred of cheese. We might’ve exploded if we had, but just know that the cast-iron platter of crumbly, seasoned sausage and melty cheese blend is bright and zesty (but not what I’d call spicy) and doubly fun to eat, thanks to the accompanying side of warm tortillas.

Back to the soup. I’ve had Pozole a few times, and I enjoy the typical combo of hominy, pork, and peppers quite a bit. Los Charros does the dish proud, subbing in chicken for pork, stewed to perfection in an excellent, orange-red broth brightened by a mix of chili peppers and accented by abundant seasoned hominy. This dish is a belly-filler, particularly because it’s likely you’ll finish every spoonful.

Chiliquillas resemble nachos, but they offer more than a crunchy bite of salty corn. Think of the best homemade tortilla chip you’ve ever eaten, and imagine it’s been sautéed in green chili sauce and covered with a three-cheese blend — a simplified nacho, if you will. We certainly didn’t miss the typical nacho toppings because the verde sauce blend added a powerful and spicy wallop of garlic, peppers, and lime to the cheesy chips, which, by the way, retained a decent amount of crispiness. Lots of heat and flavor here, and very yummy, indeed.

Come taco time, we selected some fairly classic options from a well-rounded list of a dozen or so that range from Carne Asada and Carnitas to Shrimp Curtido and Mushroom & Cashew. Final selections: Chicken Tinga ($10); Choriqueso ($10); and Short Rib Barbacoa ($12).

You get two (generously filled) tacos per order with the option to order each flavor as a rice bowl instead. The menu notes that the tacos are crafted from 100 percent organic heirloom corn from Oaxaca, so we skipped the rice option in favor of such intriguing authenticity. As it turns out, that note wasn’t hype at all. From the toothy, soft texture to the clear corn flavor, these tacos start out strong from the outside in.

If you ask me, the standout from our little selection was the Short Rib, which I’ve now ordered on two occasions, and that will likely become a habit. Each part of the filling is enjoyable on its own, starting with the tender beef and ending with the schmear of pinto beans at the very bottom. With queso fresco adding salty bursts of flavor alongside bright notes from stewed tomatillo and onion, these tacos reflect amazing alchemy. I paired mine with a side of Mexican street corn (Elote Con Queso; $5 each), an elusive menu item around these parts. You really can’t go wrong with grilled corn on the cob drenched in seasonings, butter and/or mayo, and cotija cheese, and Los Charros offers an enjoyable take on this rustic side dish.

If you ask my husband/dining partner, he’ll campaign for the Choriqueso as king of the tacos, and I can see his point. The filling of ground sausage in chorizo spices was a terrific place to start, bringing texture and a zip of flavor to the mix. When it’s combined with black beans, cheese, and pico de gallo, you’ve got a nuanced, fresh and bright flavor experience.

As for the Chicken Tinga tacos, they were fine but not remarkable. At Los Charros, the titular chicken is thigh meat, and while I tend to shy away from darker-meat chicken, it added a welcome layer of savory flavor to the construction of black beans, pico, peppers, and onions. I’m going to chalk up our reaction to the resounding success of our first two samplings, which might’ve raised our bar for That Which Would Knock Off Our Socks.

Speaking of such things, our dessert of Tres Leches Cake ($7) most definitely hit that metric. Even my non-sweet-toothed husband fought me for the last spoonful of the delicious white cake that remained firm and spongey within its bath of creamy, milky, caramel-laden sauce. It was excellent from whipped-top to bottom.

Los Charros has evolved from an experiment to a thriving eatery, and its fan-base has expanded beyond the Essex border. Here’s hoping the crowds keep coming so we can all keep enjoying its fresh, fantastic fare.

Los Charros Cantina

Los Charros Cantina

30 Main St., Centerbrook; entrance is at the rear of the building. Los Charros is the sister restaurant to The Essex, which occupies the front of the building.

(860) 237-4266

Cuisine: The website says it best: "An homage to authentic Mexican street food"; tacos in several varieties make up the bulk of the menu, but other small plates and apps include elotes, soups, queso fundido, and more. Many fabulous cocktails available crafted with house-made ingredients.

Service: On the slow side, and this was our experience during earlier visits. The bar staff is much faster and friendlier.

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 4-10 p.m.; Sunday 4-8 p.m.

Atmosphere: Roomy and cozily lit, with an open kitchen and a bustling bar. Murals and other pieces of art add fun flair.

Prices: Not bad at all. Lots of small-plate options, which top out at $13, and taco plates (three per plate) max at $14. A handful of entrees are available, too, and ranged from $18 to $24 on a recent visit.

Credit cards: Accepted

Reservations: Accepted

Handicapped access: Ramp available, no steps to enter.


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