To some, slurping down an oyster, freshly plucked from ocean waters then shucked from its shell, is pure sensory magic. The slick meaty flesh taking on the salty brine of their watery home is a delightful ambrosia, usually for those who grew up among the shores where crustaceous crops are plentiful. For the rest of us, oysters are like slimy sea snot. Maybe cooked, but raw? Yeah, no.
On the soft opening evening for Charro del Rey, I was seated with good folk that were completely split down the middle with the oyster—and clam and mussel—debate on whether the various mollusks were indeed tasty. Those who were born and raised in the desert failed to see its validity. But the attendees who spent time on coastal beaches could not stop raving about the pure and delicious flavor of the oysters they were eating that night, reminders of warm afternoons and cool nights enjoying the fresh harvests from the briny blue waters. It did not take long for the two sides to live and eat in harmony together. The food at Charro del Rey had turned a crustacean contrarian into a fan of the shellfish, while the others all welcomed them to the club with friendly we-told-you-so jibe.
The Flores family, of course, have a lot riding on this concept and have quite the reputation to maintain. Although, in all honesty, was there any real opposing thought that they couldn’t pull an upscale seafood restaurant off without much of a hitch? A few in attendance that preview evening were literally scouring their plates looking for something to complain about. Rather oddly, being the first to call out a restaurateur for a banal infraction brings them glee. But it didn’t happen. This made me happy, as Ray and Carlotta Flores are good hardworking restauranteurs and I have been a fan of executive chef Gary Hickey for years now.
Charro del Rey sits right next door to its meat-centric brother, Charro Steak. The interior easily matches the food it surrounds: understated elegance with just a hint of Tucson grit and a good amount of familiar fun.
Charro del Rey is a love letter from Ray Flores to small seafood eateries he frequented back in Pasadena, California. There is an oyster bar right in the center of the space, reminiscent of a shellfish depot chef Hickey regularly visits at the Chelsea Seafood Market in New York. In the few months they had before opening the doors to the public, Flores and Hickey would meet for eight hours a day conceptualizing the menu. The two drew together up to 500 different dishes, slowly narrowing them down to fit with the limited space they have to work with in the tight kitchen. With a family history of French cuisine, Flores knew that lobsters smothered in butter and topped with fresh herbs had to be a staple. Hickey visualized Charro del Rey as the bright new seafood concept as other higher-end seafood restaurants have recently moved on. Together, they formulated an affordable catalogue of reimagined classics, inviting all—even those with a skeptical view on seafood served in the desert—to come in and settle their own deep-water debates.
One item that diners can agree on is that when ceviche arrives at your table in a bowl of reddish broth, the first instinct is to wonder if you ordered the gazpacho. The four varieties at del Rey are three-dimensional composites of fresh scallops, ahi and shrimp, with the obvious contender being the bright juice of actual limes accented with the various other components. Those pining for 1980s “fancy” cuisine seriously need to dive into their Lobster Rockefeller ($11) because it is a messy, buttery retro delight. A bib is not only suggested, but mandatory.
There is a prime rib available for those not ready to dive into seafood—or you can surf-and-turf with beef and lobster, shrimp or “Oscar style,” meaning crab and asparagus smothered in a hollandaise sauce. It’s really no debate: Charro del Rey, in one way or another, will get you hooked.