A decade can make a difference. Ten years ago, most Lex-Mex restaurants served only oversauced and oversalted, cheese-laden heavy dishes, and very few were authentic. Lunch at one of these spots could mean your main meal was not only for today, but the next few. It was, and still is, hard to find a decent vegetable dish at any of them. Sigh.
In spite of that, we usually have found complimentary words to describe the fare — perhaps hearty or generous — but healthy has never been one of them.
That last adjective alone is reason enough, as Americans become more health-conscious, for those far from Lexington's south side to try dinner at El Charro, off Harrodsburg Road beyond Man o' War Boulevard.
I don't say that the food would necessarily make the grade with the American Heart Association. I am not a nutritionist. And vegetarians would rightly object to finding flour tortillas, made with lard, in the vegetarian section of the menu. Yet it struck me that El Charro's overall approach might be better for you than that of its competitors.
Let's begin with a soy quesadilla, a new one on me. OK, they used a flour tortilla, less healthy (and less tasty) than corn, but it was filled with sautéed soy protein that tasted like, yes, ground chicken. The quesadilla does have cheese, but just a glaze of it. On the side was a salad of lettuce, pico de gallo and chunky guacamole. It was a meal in itself. The guacamole was not too salty; it needed only a squeeze of lime to be perfect.
El Charro's general restraint with salt also is a healthier plus. Both entrees I sampled included rice and beans, and neither was heavy on the salt. You could taste the yellow rice, and the beans were light and not greasy.
If you want more flavor, ask for the trio of salsas instead of reaching for the salt shaker. There is a creamy and very spicy green one that uses avocados, another sharp green one made with jalapeños and tomatillos, and a third brick-red salsa loaded with chili pepper seeds.
One main course I tried was a house special: mole poblano. I was told they make the mole sauce themselves, and I believe it. Although the sauce is not tremendously complex, you could taste layers of cinnamon and clove, and there was a slightly smoky aroma. It was a vast improvement over the too-sweet and too-chocolaty moles I have had, and the chicken breast meat was succulent.
I also enjoyed the chile verde. This dish was the saltiest item by far — but nevertheless delicious. All healthy talk notwithstanding, smart salting is what brings out the taste in food. In this tangy pork stew, that is what the salt did while allowing the tomatillo sauce to show off its citrus character, the spiky taste of peppers and the richness of chicken broth. For the record, the chunks of pork were fork-tender.
El Charro has carved out a niche for itself by taking a turn away from the predictable, experimenting with soy protein and attempting to offer a lighter side of Mexican cuisine. I am hoping innovation with vegetables isn't far away.
Address: 4371 Old Harrodsburg Rd., Suite 1880
Phone: (859) 219-0200
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., Sat. Lunch menu 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.
Other: Parking lot. Vegetarian options. Full bar. Appetizers, salads and soups, $2.99-$10.99; enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas, $6.99-$9.49; entrees and combination plates, $7.89-$13.99; desserts, $3.99-$4.99.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.