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Dining With los Muertos

A new book explores Tucson's Mexican cuisine for holidays and every day.


Day of the Dead?

"How gory. How atrocious." These are the reactions visitors occasionally share with Carlotta Dunn Flores, who runs Tucson's El Charro Cafe, where at this time of year skulls and skeletons, traditional Day of the Dead emblems decorate the bar and the gift shop.

But Flores, who has a new book, "El Charro Cafe" (Fisher Books; $24.95), on the history of her family's restaurant and the style of Mexican cooking that is unique to Tucson, sees the holiday--El Dia de los Muertos--differently. It's an important day to honor and to celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

When Flores was a girl, it was common for families to go to the cemeteries in which their relatives were buried and spend all day celebrating. This happens less often today--in good part because many cemeteries don't allow it anymore. But it still happens in Tucson.

"They visit, listen to music, they pray and talk and clean up the graves," says Flores. "The vendors are there too, selling candles and flowers. All of a sudden, the cemetery looks pretty." The flower of the day is the zempazuchitl, an orange marigold.

These days, it's more common for Mexican-American families to celebrate Day of the Dead at home or even in restaurants like Flores'. El Charro Cafe was founded in 1922 by Flores' great aunt, Monica Flin, and quickly became a Tucson social center. The cafe inhabits a house constructed by Flin's father, Jules, in the late 1890s. Over the years, El Charro expanded and now the name is associated with three restaurants, a catering operation and a food products business.

Flores' book, full of family photographs and paintings by local artists, tracks the life of El Charro from tiny cafe to successful business.

Many recipes in the book would be familiar to Mexican food lovers all over the country. But some are known only in Tucson. In a chapter on ingredients, Flores writes: "The Mexican food we enjoy in Tucson today is a unique cuisine not found in any other border town. Although you may recognize the names of some dishes--tacos, tamales, enchiladas, burros, chimichangas, chile colorado--our way of preparing them is different from anywhere else in the world."

Eighteen-inch flour tortillas, for example, are stretched so thin they are almost translucent. Enchiladas are flat (the recipe in Flores' book mixes potatoes and cheese into the masa). And carne seca, or sun-dried beef, is one of the region's best-loved meats--and an El Charro specialty. Flores' husband, Ray, has devised steel cages in which 50 pounds of beef a day are hung to dry in the hot Arizona sun.

Among the book's holiday recipes are sweet pumpkin tamales, which are made especially for fall. Other sweets for the holiday are more macabre. Candy skulls and coffins can be traced to German and Austrian confectioners who settled in Mexico. Pan de los muertos, a round sweet bread decorated with tears and crossbones, is sold in Mexican bakeries.

Egg breads are eaten for this observance, Flores says, because the egg represents life. A suitable dessert is rice pudding (arroz con leche). "It's a comfort food, something you want at this time," she says.

If one were to celebrate the Day of the Dead with a dinner, Flores suggests a menu that incorporates the warm colors of autumn. The main dish could be roast pork with mangoes, accompanied by rice that contains fresh and dried fruits. "I would serve a tortilla soup first, with chunky pieces of avocado," she says, "and for dessert, a hot apple pie, pumpkin ice cream or pumpkin empanaditas."

The traditional drink for El Dia de Los Muertos is hot chocolate, but the weather in Tucson is too hot for that, Flores says. "Here we are drinking aguas frescas and ice teas."


1 head garlic


2 (1-pound) pork tenderloins or 1 (2- to 3-pound) boneless pork loin

2 tablespoons flour

Salt, pepper

1 cup mango preserves or mango chutney

1 cup apricot jam

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon nutmeg

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 or 2 mangoes, sliced

Carlotta Flores sometimes flavors the sauce for the roast with chipotle chile, adding a spicy note to the rich fruit flavors. Serve this with Fruited Rice.

Peel garlic cloves and puree in blender with 1 tablespoon water. Measure 2 tablespoons puree; reserve remaining puree for another use. Coat pork with flour, then rub in garlic puree and salt and pepper to taste.

Place meat on rack in shallow roasting pan. Mix mango preserves, apricot jam, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar and coat meat with mixture. Roast at 450 degrees 10 minutes, then lower heat to 350 degrees and roast until internal temperature reaches 155 degrees and juices run clear when knife is inserted into center of roast, about 15 minutes total cooking time for pork tenderloins, about 45 minutes total cooking time for pork loin.

Remove meat to cutting board. Allow meat to rest 10 minutes before cutting. Cut into thin slices and arrange on serving platter or individual plates.

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