Over the last two weeks, I spent nearly five hours at chef Colt Taylor’s new Branford location of Los Charros, happily eating my way through nearly half the menu – rich, salty birria tacos dipped in consommé, house-made corn tortillas with crisp fried fish, salsa verde, crema, cabbage and avocado, pork shoulder served family style with flour tortillas, a half-dozen dishes, roasted and pickled vegetables, beans and rice.
Taylor’s original vision when he opened the first Los Charros in Centerbrook — a relaxed vibe, a menu devoted to regional Mexican favorites without purism, generous well-made drinks served on the rocks – here is ably executed and in places rethought and improved by Brooklyn-native Dominic Keyes, whose decades-long resume counts opening Red Rooster with Marcus Samuelsson and a recent stint with David Standridge at Shipwright’s Daughter in Mystic.
On the first night I asked Keyes what he brought to the table, and Taylor’s new chef du cuisine replied in a way that emphasized his role in disciplining the kitchen, tightening the recipes and menus, and introducing house-made tortillas (which are quite good) made from heirloom corn.
Freed from its over-large and idiosyncratic original space in Centerbrook, the idea is apparently to ready Los Charros for openings in more locations – and with his decades in the kitchen, Keyes was hired specifically to help make it happen.
Taylor, who also re-opened a fine dining venture, The Essex, on the Main Street in Old Saybrook, was generous in his praise of Keyes and the kitchen the next night, emphasizing Keyes’ “ownership” of Los Charros, with a young sous chef, Byrnes Burgland.
The building blocks of the menu – the tortillas, the mole coloradito and roja, earthy, bittersweet, the fatty braised beef, chicken and pork, the use of concentrated veal stock – give the menu a tightly-woven flavor profile. It’s less tomato than dried peppers. Less herbs than spice. Never particularly hot (even the habanero salsa). The mole is deeply-flavored, and rich – the defining flavor really of Los Charros – but with the exception of the birria tacos – which are meant to be over-the-top and succeed at that — this richness is resolved by Keyes with a light touch and little cheese or crema.
On the first night, notably, the only beans I was served were the edamame in the guacamole – a slight Asian riff on the common practice of including green pea with the avocado – the added protein firmed the texture – it was excellent. The only rice served was unseasoned, cold short-grained beneath a tuna aguachile – a quick cure of sushi-grade tuna – close in spirit to a Japanese negitoro don. What I wanted, instead, was the slight warmth and seasoned rice of chirashi.
Altogether with the occasional sprinkle of Furikake, a faddish Japanese spice blend, it’s a style of cooking that takes authenticity only to a point and is more complicated, and refined, than it looks.
The next night, after trying the shrimp and the fish tacos – both classic-style and highly recommended – the kitchen sent out a vegan fried chickpea and broccolini taco that wasn’t at all classic but was all the same a highlight of both nights.
Patatas bravas, a simple dish of crisp fried potatoes on a spiced cream that could have easily been served with Indian cooking, were here perfection.
But really I came back, in part, the next night to choose between the Yucatec whole chicken pibil or pork shoulder served family style. I chose the pork, and was not disappointed, essentially a second dinner of small plates, pickles plucked straight from the Pacific rim, perfectly cooked pork, roasted pineapple slices, and this time traditionalist beans and rice accompanying that were as good as any I’ve had.
On the nights we went early, and with the dining room quickly filling up, the kitchen was capably humming, quickly turning out dish after dish as intended.
The service, under floor manager Nancy Wood was loose, but winning, even endearing. You want to like Los Charros, the chefs, the servers, the food. And you kind of feel it in the other direction, in the front and the back of the house, the soft armchairs the second night that doubled for a booth, the boozy drinks and the generously overstuffed tacos.
My dining companions the second night pinpointed the kitchen somewhere between the peerless humble cooking of La Barca and the high-end Oaxacan dining at Guelaguetza, both in LA.