A friend from Los Angeles had barely settled into his temporary home here when we called to see if he wanted to have dinner. But as soon as we pulled up at Los Charros in Altamonte Springs, I started to second-guess my decision. What was I thinking, taking a Pacific Coaster to eat Mexican on his first day in Orlando? How could it ever live up?
The surrounding neighborhood isn't much to look at, but Los Charros itself sits like a bastion of warmth in an empty strip mall parking lot. The orange building, covered with bright blue awnings, seems quaint. I was hoping for something more glamorous to impress our guests from La La Land, but cozy would do.
We walked inside and I was relieved to smell authentic Mexican spices simmering away chili peppers, cilantro, onion and tangy tomato. The room was decorated with a hodgepodge of still-life paintings and knickknacks. The hostess greeted us with a huge smile and pleasantly showed us to a table the size of Texas. We sat staring at each other over the vast divide, looking jaundiced because of the harsh fluorescent lighting. (The décor looked a little dingy, too.) Our server was as friendly as the hostess, and she dropped off a basket of chips and salsa and took our drink order. I grabbed a freshly fried tortilla chip, dunked it in cilantro-rich liquid salsa, and turned my attention to the enormous menu.
A half-hour later our table was a jumble of enchiladas, tacos, burritos and rice dishes. The enchiladas were hit and miss the bean variety ($1.75) lacked an assertive seasoning, and the cheese one ($1.75) was surprisingly dull, even with the ineluctable fat dripping from the end. The best were the house enchiladas ($7.99), a full plate loaded with chicken-stuffed corn tortillas, topped with melted cheese; the savory sauce hidden in the tortilla brought out the flavor of the fresh chicken, although the meat tended to be tough.
Two disappointing dishes were the greasy chiles rellenos ($7.99), which were on the overcooked side and had not been fully purged of their bitter seeds. And the queso fundido ($5.50) was standard, but didn't have the usual bite needed to cut through the cheese.
Skip the hard tacos ($1.75), which mostly tasted like cumin-laced Beefaroni in a stale shell. The soft tacos, however, are stunning in their ability to please. The tacos de carne asada ($7.50) were a trio of pliable corn tortillas filled with piquant marinated steak complemented by homemade tomatillo sauce. The carnitas soft taco ($2) was equally as satisfying, with each morsel of braised pork both tender yet crispy.
On the upside, anything that isn't pleasing at Los Charros can be covered in spicy guacamole ($2.75). Theirs was some of the best I've had, balancing the creaminess of ripened avocado with lime and salt and a peck of intense herbs.
For dessert, skip the medicinal-tasting churros ($3.75), and instead order the billowy sopapillas ($3.50), a fried flour concoction drizzled with honey and dusted in cinnamon.
There is authenticity at Los Charros, but most of the dishes seem to lack something. Perhaps what it needed was the regular cook, since we later found out that he was out of town visiting family in Mexico. I asked my Californian friend what he thought.
"It ain't California," he mused. But we knew that.