Smiling at Charlie's

The food and service--past and present--is a delight at this spot just south of the Rillito

For many years, the thing to do on Monday nights was head down the road to Fred's place. During the week, he'd have lots of steaks, burgers and prime rib for his customers at the Blue Saguaro on Dodge Boulevard, just south of the Rillito. The chicken and fish were good, too, and I still search in vain for the white pizzas he turned out: flaky like a flour tostada with the bite of jalapeños in the melted cheese.

But on Monday nights, the only thing you wanted to get was his tacos. Throughout the week, he would save the trimmings from all those steaks and prime rib and turn them into the most mouth-watering tacos I've ever had. Two for $2.99--the best deal in food and economy. It was a fave meal for the second ex and me, either as takeout or dine-in, despite the smokiness of the bar--it was all one room in those days--and it was always fun to see buds from Green Things, the sheriff's office and other haunts. One of my best memories is a night with Mom, the ex-hizzoner George Miller and Roz, role models throughout much of my life. We laughed and ate and mourned all the things staunch and very liberal Democrats instinctively mourn.

Fred lived upstairs and was fully in charge of all aspects, from the bar to the kitchen to the dining area. In the early mornings, I'd see him walking his dog along Dodge, and we'd wave; sometimes at night, we'd worry together over the plans--whatever they happened to be at the time--to realign Alvernon Way.

Fred's mother passed away, as did my own, and life went on. One night, he told me he was selling the biz and retiring. I was sad at the thoughts--not seeing him walking his dog, not hearing his plain wisdom at the bar and, not least of all, I am not embarrassed to admit, deeply regretting the inevitable loss of those tacos.

In time, the Blue Saguaro gave way to Leo's, a Mexican-food restaurant which has enjoyed success during the years on Speedway Boulevard. Leo must have put a ton of money into the old Blue Saguaro: refurbishing the interior with a fancy glass wall separating bar from dining area, repainting and repaving. It took months. It was a nice place, but the magic didn't happen, and Leo's didn't last as long as we'd hoped. The food was good, but it just didn't catch on.

But Leo's begat Charlie's. And that's a good thing.

OK, a confession. I am not crazy about the Western-cute names on the menu, nor about the lingo that "everyone from Grandpa all the way down to the little cowpoke's (sic)" will enjoy the place. But those things have nothing to do with either food or service, and it's always good to keep that in mind. Honestly, the idea of a Nabakovian- or Proustian-perfect restaurant doesn't turn me on ... well, perhaps the Proust-influenced one might. Anyway, point maybe made.

Charlie's has all that lingo, but it also has the food and service to make you forget petty irritations. I might never have given it a shot, after all these years and changes, had not my enterprising co-workers one day picked up pizzas from the place. Let me tell ya, folks--the "Doc Holiday" is dynamite. Red sauce, pesto, spinach, artichoke hearts, tomato, garlic and feta--it warmed this carnivore's heart. It also weighed about five pounds.

Since then, I've made my way back to try a variety of things, mostly with Andrew. In the meantime, we've had some great burgers there (and the fries are crisp and very, very fine), fish 'n' chips, more pizza and a host of appetizers. Give the Saguaro skins a try--potato skins with tomatoes, pesto, artichoke hearts and brie. You may not have room for anything else, but that's OK.

I was talking with a friend the other night as we were driving to Phoenix for a meal at a place he had raved about--for good reason, as I will write about later. We were having the food vs. service discussion, and I admitted that I was always more interested in great food than in great service. I mean, the ideal is the happy marriage of the two, but in the end, I'm down for the food. At Charlie's, you don't have to choose between the two: The food--not fancy, but smart and thoughtful--doesn't disappoint, and the service leaves you smiling.

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