Tucked beneath the stoop of a West Village townhouse, El Charro Español spans generations: its Yelp reviews often begin with lines like "My parents started taking me here when I was young. I'm 29 now." The space says heavy and yesteryear, from the red leather banquettes to the starched tablecloths to the flea market-esque paintings of cowboys lining the walls to the menus yellowing beneath their lamination. Any impression of fustiness, however, vanishes with the food.
"Crazy person," one of us muttered when the other ordered caldo Gallego ($5.25). After all, temperatures that day had reached 90. But the soup was airy and soft. Tiny morsels of meat looked like Bacon Bits, floating amongst white beans, potatoes, and onions gone translucent. Flakes of collard greens lent the consommé a refreshing depth and color. According to the menu, the soup combats both humidity and cold. It'll be a while before we can test the second claim, but the first certainly held true.
Three tapas followed. The dense tortilla española ($7.75) came stippled with layers of buttery egg and potato. While good when it arrived, the omelet got better sitting at the table, each wedge becoming more of itself as it cooled.
Our one complaint regarding the deliciously cooked gambas al chef ($12.75): the shells not only made a mess of our mitts but also made it hard for the sauce to seep into the shrimp. And you'll want this sauce all over the protein, as well as all over your bread and, depending on how your date is going, all over your companion's fingers. For this sauce buzzes, a mix of tomato and olive oil shocked by a few electric squeezes of lemon. We thought seriously about licking the plate.
The pulpo al ajo arriero ($12.75) sizzled and snapped, an arrogant announcement of its presence. Here I am, it crackled, now give me some attention. OK! Cooked according to Galician tradition, the octopus was boiled, pounded flimsy, sauteed, and hacked into nickel-sized slices. Whereas the shrimp sauce was clean, this sauce was pure fire, a mixture of garlic and hot pepper flakes, as bubbling on the tongue as it was in its ceramic bowl.
Our single entree, pollo con salsa de almendra ($17.95), was so large, we wondered if we'd inadvertently ordered two. The split breast had also been pounded, then delicately breaded and ever-so-gently fried. It practically melted into the almond sauce, a tad too thick with cornstarch or flour. The "salsa" hopscotched back and forth over the sweet-savory divide, giving the meal yet another surprise: an element of playfulness.
Given a choice between rice and Spanish potatoes, we opted for the latter as a side—and what a good move that was. These babies tasted like 3D potato chips, plump and chewy. Lightly salted, they didn't need ketchup or mayo; they were utterly gobbleable on their own.
By all accounts El Charro serves a mean sangria and snappy margarita. We're less sure about the nachos, on the menu, perhaps, to please the kids; and the music, a mildly disconcerting medley of Three Doors Down and Stevie Nicks. But the vivid cooking and utter lack of trendiness have their own charms. El Charro is best for: a date to el país viejo.