Everyone should have a friend like Steve Coleman, the erudite owner of Steve’s Food Page. Not only is he a great guy and a lot of fun to spend time with, he’s a superb host and tour guide. During a two-day sojourn to “El Chuco,” Steve not only showed us the sights, he gave me a much-needed lesson about history New Mexico and Texas share. He explained that during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, members of the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico were displaced to El Paso along with Oñate and the Spaniards. Today, descendants of those Native Americans reside in a Native American Pueblo in the Ysleta section of El Paso just about three miles from El Charlatan, our dining destination.
We were looking forward to Steve ferreting us through the historic El Paso Mission Trail, a nine-mile route representing a segment of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior), the historic trail that ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Alas, unseasonably fierce winds (another commonality New Mexico and Texas share) obfuscated our view of the churches as we drove past (at least one of) them. On the Fujita Scale, a measure of wind speed, winds were howling at the F1 level which means tree limbs snapping, power outages and along mostly blinding dust along the dirt-packed distance between El Paso and Juarez. We literally couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of us.
It’s no wonder that even at the safe speed of 20mph, we drove past El Charlatan. We had to double back on Socorro Road. Finding no parking lot in front of the restaurant, we traversed west of the restaurant along a walled complex with an intriguing mural declaring “Somos de Aqui y de Alla,” literally “we’re from here and there.” The poignant mural depicts the evolution of the Mexican people, from Meso-American to contemporary times. The complex behind that citadel-like complex was once Hacienda Apodaca. Today, the complex houses an art gallery, venue hall, coffee shop, and El Charlatan.
There’s no parking within the complex either. Instead on an unpaved dirt area you’ll find picnic tables for diners who prefer their coffee or meals al fresco. We were to learn El Charlatan is sequestered behind a blue door of the once family home. Just outside the door, we espied a wooden replica of the type of wells used when the hacienda was thriving. Just before reaching the door, there’s a unique “chair” constructed out of circular cut wood. A small hole on the seat part of that chair is reminiscent of an outdoor toilet.
It’s when you enter El Charlatan that you’re taken aback. Quite simply if Chef Enrique Lozano hadn’t been nominated for a James Beard Award as the Best Chef in Texas for which he’s currently a semifinalist, he could have been nominated for best decor of any restaurant in the Lone Star State. Chef Lozana has not only managed to fuse seemingly disparate culinary cultures, he’s proven that those colorful cultures can be blended decoratively. Architecturally, the restaurant is Mexican, but elements of both Mexico and Japan festoon the walls, shelves and nichos of the small two-dining room space. There literally is something to catch your eye at every turn.
I may not know much about decorating, color schemes or fashion, but I do know what I like…not that my Kim would let me put up Japanese lanterns in our Southwest home. They do work well in El Charlatan’s front dining room where the floors, nichos and brickwork are decidedly Mexican but the bric-a-brac is Japanese. Perhaps even more breathtaking than the front dining room is slightly larger main dining room where we were seated. Luchadores, those masked Mexican wrestlers with a superhero-like mystique, are an integral part of the decor here. From our table we had a vantage point that allowed us to see the dining room from an entirely different perspective. Beyond the fireplace is a view of the front dining room.
A framed painting on the front dining room wall may at first bring to mind a diner spewing his (or her) lunch, but on closer investigation, that diner is endeavoring to slurp up a large tangle of noodles. It’s all in great fun. So is the culinary fusion of Asian (primarily Japanese) cuisine with the Mexican food so prevalent in the area. El Charlatan is definitely where you want to go to transport your senses to two continents at the same time. It’s where you want to go for an unpretentious meal constructed entirely of high-quality, fresh ingredients. It’s not just a “foodie” destination. Every diner will find much to love from a menu showcasing tacos, baos and a phalanx of other fantastic fusion foods.
Though so-called “fusion cuisine” has been around for time since at least the melding of chocolate and peanut butter, few have ever done it nearly as well as Chef Lozano. Originally from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and now a resident of Socorro about a mile north of his birthplace, Chef Lozano cut his teeth working for his dad’s catering company and watching his mom prepare food from scratch. The passion his parents have for cooking inspired him to pursue a culinary career. It’s only natural he would pursue a career preparing the foods with which he grew up. His love for Asian cooking came later.
Chef Lozano’s first job in the culinary arena was at Zino’s Greek & Mediterranean Cuisine in El Paso. In time, he made his way to a Michelin-rated, Chicago-based restaurant called Next, which in its first year earned a “Best New Restaurant in America” award from the James Beard Foundation. Returning home to El Paso, he opened up Nishi Ramen in Downtown El Paso. At Nishi, Chef Lozano used the finest ingredients he could source to prepare each bowl of ramen himself. Much of he loves ramen, he was called to return to his roots of traditional Mexican food, but with a nuanced twist.
That twist marries what he calls his two “love languages:” ramen y tacos. El Charlatan’s website boasts “Ushering a fusion of lacto fermentation to everything in our ramen dishes to the toppings on our tacos, you’ll be sure to brag about this to your tios, primos and your abuelos. La Charlatan was launched in January, 2021. In its annual survey of “where to eat now” in the Lone Star State, Texas Monthly highlighted dozens of its favorite dishes. Among the anointed dishes was El Charlatan’s “Bourdain,” a ramen dish named for the peripatetic culinary traveler.
Incorporating fresh local ingredients sourced mostly from Socorro, El Paso and Juarez, Chef Lozano’s new restaurant was an immediate hit. Though Socorro–on the east fringes of El Paso and bordering Juarez to the south–was already a dining destination in which numerous Mexican restaurants were on the radar of savvy diners like my friend Steve, El Charlatan quickly became the new kid in town that everyone has to visit. In 2023, Chef Lozano was nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef – Texas award, one of the most prestigious culinary awards in the country.
Admittedly, deciding what to order from a menu showcasing the specialties of two nations is a daunting prospect. Fortunately we were helped with our decision-making process by our server Louie, a ubiquitous and attentive ambassador for the restaurant and its cuisine. Louie provided recommendations and explained what dishes are especially highly regarded. I dispensed with the decision-making dilemma by opting for the tasting menu, an eight item melange of deliciousness that includes two desserts. Steve and my Kim had a harder time deciding what to have.
As we perused the menu, Louie ferried over a bamboo basket similar to what Chinese restaurants use for plating dim sum dishes. Instead of Chinese “touch the heart” specialties, the basket contained three handmade flour tortillas accompanied by fresh butter from Licon Dairy, a must-visit working dairy just a few miles from El Charlatan. The fresh butter was infused with miso and Asian spices. The butter was so good, we should immediately have ordered the Licon cheese platter. We did trek to the Dairy where we stocked up on Chihuahua, Asadero and Requeson cheeses. In retrospect, we should have asked if the butter was also available at the dairy.
We joked that El Charlatan might be doing a disservice to its business by not only serving complimentary tortillas and butter, but an amuse bouche as well. Amuse bouche, a French term for a small savory item of food served as an appetizer before a meal, are a staple at some fine-dining restaurants so why not at El Charlatan? Our amuse bouche was a medley of magnificent mouth-pleasing ingredients atop a delightful sweet onion croquette (and the only three I can remember are gochujang, tempura crumbles and scallions). Chef Lozano’s use of gochujang is on display throughout El Charlatan’s amazing menu. The gochujang, a savory, sweet, and spicy fermented Korean chile paste condiment was just a bit too incendiary for my Kim so I had two of these amazing (sadly nameless because my memory is terrible) amuse bouche.
Despite having ordered the chef’s tasting menu, my gluttony apparently has no limits. I still wanted to share in the bao trio: pork belly bao (a steamed bun filled with pork belly and pickle, this bao is topped with toasted sesame seeds and hoisin sauce); fried chicken bao (a crispy buttermilk-fried chicken sits in a steamed bun. Paired with picked and topped with togarashi, hoisin and toasted sesame seeds); and Tempura tofu bao and pickles in a warm, steamed bun, topped with togarashi and hoisin sauce. The three bao were served in a decidedly Mexican plate not the bamboo basket we expected.
Gentlemen that we are, Steve and I let my Kim decide which bao she wanted…as if there was any doubt. She latched onto the fried chicken bao with the “enthusiasm” of a mother bear protecting her cubs. This is fried chicken worthy of a country song. It’s crisp, lightly breaded and as good as your favorite fried chicken. Naturally, the bao left to me was the tempura tofu bao which turned out to be a good thing. Unlike most bao we’ve had, the sweet, white dough was neither too sweet nor too doughy. It was more substantial than other bao we’ve had. Because bao is a little sweeter than your average bread bun, chefs tend to use fillings and toppings that balance out the flavors and make it into a more savory. Chef Lozano certainly did that.
Because you can never have enough fried chicken, my Kim’s entree was the Samurai Ramen (noodles with togarashi spiced fried chicken, naratoraki, a soft-boiled egg all in a double dipped broth made from fresh veggies and tonkotsu and topped with tare, scallion and toasted nori). Togarashi, a spicy powdered assortment of dried chili peppers and other seasonings, proved too hot for my Kim. Louie asked the chef to prepare another batch without the pleasantly piquant spices. This Samurai couldn’t be tamed. Even with a less potent fried chicken, there is so much personality and an intense flavor profile within the broth.
Steve’s choice was the “Bourdain,” the ramen showcased by Texas Monthly in its annual “Where to Eat and Drink Now” feature. Texas Monthly proclaimed El Charlatan “one of the best places for a bowl of ramen in all of Texas. The Bourdain ramen—named for the late culinary traveler Anthony Bourdain—hits the requisite marks with squiggly noodles, pork belly, Japanese fish cake, scallions, and a soft-cooked egg in a rich and creamy tonkotsu-style pork-bone broth.” Steve and I were in agreement that our preference would have been for a more traditional (and more mellow) tonkotsu pork-bone broth. The Bourdain broth had a pronounced smoky flavor. That’s especially true of the thick bacon-like pork belly. The squiggly noodles and soft-cook egg were definitely highlights. The Bourdain was one of the eight items on the tasting menu so my portion was somewhat smaller than Steve’s.
One of the problems with tasting menus when you’re my age (perpetually 39) is that unless you have an eidetic memory, you can’t always remember everything you had–its composition, texture, flavors, etc. Even with the photographs Steve took for me, I’m at a loss to explain the two items pictured above. One I believe is a tostada, the other a dumpling. While I may not remember specific details, my taste buds start to water just looking at the photograph. There’s no doubt these two bite-sized treats were replete with flavors my taste buds can recall even though my gray matter can’t.
Although delivery of the tasting menu dishes were well spaced to allow for reflection and degustation, each dish was so replete with ingredients that Louie’s adjective-laden descriptions came like a fusillade. In my youth I would have remembered it all, but at 39 my memory just isn’t what it used to be. Fortunately Steve photographed the border of the menu where the tasting menu is listed. At any regard, my descriptions probably won’t do justice to one of the best culinary adventures I’ve ever had in Texas. On an elongated plate came two more of my favorites.
At left (pictured above) is the tostada de camaron con tortilla acquil y aguachile negro (fresh shrimp aguachiles with a Yucatan-style black sauce (intense black salsa made with roasted tomatoes and peppers which imbue it with a deep dark color and a gutsy flavor) and micro greens. There was so much atop the tostada that I couldn’t eat it hand-held style as would have been my preference. Still who wouldn’t trade hearty toppings for convenience. The black sauce imparts so much flavor and personality that my lips tingled from both the heat and the citrusy tang. The Taco del dia, a crispy fried shrimp taco with fresh cabbage, pickled red onion, and caviar, and served with Chile de Arbol and Tomatillo sauces was probably the most piquant item on the tasting menu. I always thought chile de arbor and tomatillo would clash, but the pairing proved so concordant that they played a virtual symphony on my taste buds.
The first of two desserts was El Ganzo (vanilla-nori cake with grilled strawberry jam, soy meringue topped with chocolate glaze, chocolate sprinkles and edible gold foil). In the vernacular of Northern New Mexico, El Ganzo translates from Spanish to “The Turkey,” but there’s nothing turkey-like about one of the very best desserts to ever cross my lips. The edible gold foil is strictly show; it adds nothing to the deep richness and flavors of a multi-level cake. Neither my Kim nor Steve had ever tried gold foil. Neither was impressed. El Ganzo was inspired by a Mexican snack caked called Gansito. It’s rare that a dessert captures my affections nearly as much as savory items, but this is one special dessert.
Remarkably, the second dessert may have been even better if that’s possible. In my haste to try it, I neglected to photograph it (which may have been a good thing lest I be haunted by beauty I can taste only in my imagination). This amazing dessert is the Camote Ahumado (smoked sweet potato, miso caramel, candied nuts and soy meringue). It was reminiscent of the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever had times four. The candied nuts played foil to the decadent sweetness of other ingredients, all of which worked in the rare harmony that makes the most memorable desserts. It’s a vegan dessert that would convert the most stubborn of carnivores.
The list of semifinalists in the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef – Texas” category is replete with culinary artists from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. Solely perusing that list of heralded chefs might surprise you to find tiny, impoverished little Socorro among the metropolitan giants in the Texas culinary world. Visit El Charlatan and the only surprise you’ll have is how good the fusion of Japanese and Mexican foods can be. El Charlatan is one of those rare gems that delivers surprise after surprise.
El Charlatan Taqueria Y Ramen-Ya
10180 Socorro Road
Website | Facebook Page
MOST RECENT VISIT: 26 February 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Tasting Menu, Samurai Ramen, Pork Belly Bao, Fried Chicken Bao, Tofu Tempura Bao, Aguas Frescas, Gansito, Gold Leaf,
One thought on “El Charlatan – Socorro, Texas”
I’m very glad you were able to come to El Paso and try a couple of the very best restaurants in the city (although there are many more excellent choices that await you should you be able to make a return trip). Your trip coincided with a horrendous wind event, but I assure you that this is not the norm and it did not seem to affect the meal that they served. Their patio furniture also appeared to survive the windstorm.
The Tasting Menu looked fantastic, and thank you very much for the samples you provided. I was very impressed with the Mexican/Asian fusion food here. Like you, I have a hard time matching the photos with the items listed on the Tasting Menu. I do not think they followed the menu exactly, and they said in two weeks the menu would be changing (as I am writing this it is two weeks later and I assume they now have the new menu). Even without trying the Tasting Menu, though, there seem to be a number of good choices on the menu. Some of the Tasting Menu items included sushi norteño, flour tostada and shisho, and taco de jicama and kimchi. I’m not sure if these are some of your unidentified dishes, but they look as if they would be worth ordering from the menu. In any case, I think you made a good choice with the restaurants you visited.