All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
The lunch rush at Charco Broiler is a well-oiled machine. Rigo Dominguez, who mans the nearly 53-year-old grill, opens the fridge, tongs steaks onto the hot grates with a hiss and fist-bumps a patron. Two older gentlemen in front of me, in matching North Texas Food Bank shirts, get a chicken-fried steak each. Both come out just barely present on the plate under a blanket of paper-white gravy.
I order a bacon cheeseburger. Dominguez asks if I want half-pound, pointing to a patty that’s reading my mind and already on the grill. Flames smother the burger, and smoke’s pumping out. He lays a few strips of thin bacon directly onto the grill. It’s less like an ordering line and more like an interactive art exhibit of quick eats. Fries? Yes. Pickle? Yes. Grab a signature Charco Broiler tray, ask for fries or an oven-baked potato, and get a salad in a brittle wooden bowl. I zigzag blue cheese dressing on my salad and shower on the Bacos. Bacos are alive and well at Charco Broiler.
Baco-showered, I head into the dining room with my tray. Aromas of smoke and char waft up from the burger. Of the three dining rooms, I choose the one with tables covered in faux-cowhide, a Western-themed mural covering the wall.
Visit at lunch hour on a Tuesday and you’d think this is one of the most popular restaurants in Oak Cliff. A diverse group of construction workers, police officers, families, elderly couples. Some customers come in four or five times a week, owner Nick Cordova says.
My burger tastes of a fiery grill, but that’s about it. There’s zero seasoning, as far as I can tell, but a do-it-yourself seasoned salt tub on a condiments station nearby. The bacon is thin enough to see through, and charred on the edges from the fire. There’s three strips on my burger, but it’s honestly some of the worst bacon I’ve ever had. The salad is near-wilted, which blue cheese can’t even save. My patty is, however, medium rare, a pink-to-char gradient, and the American cheese is melted nicely.
So, what is Charco Broiler, and what — other than the whimsical cow on the roof – keeps filling this dining room?
“It’s not like these days I frequent Charco Broiler, but it’s a landmark, and it's been a part of Oak Cliff my whole life," says Oak Cliff resident Skye McDaniel. She went to culinary school and has worked in restaurants for years. “We used to do Charco Broiler occasionally after church when I was growing up. I don’t have a vivid memory of the food because we probably stopped going ... probably when I was about 10.”
Eating a burger at the Broiler, you’d never know there was a “farm-to-table” movement. You’d never know Nashville hot chicken was trending. It’s a workhorse meal that perfectly preserves the time when we all ate Bacos. Which is to say: A time when we didn’t bother with the idea of where our food came from. It’s just a meal, no more and no less, and it’s affordable.
The wood paneling and the smoky char and the schlocky Texas-y decor — and, of course, Sonny the Steer proudly sniffing the wind on the roof — all make for a much homier experience than a depressing chain restaurant. Nobody looks sad eating at Charco Broiler, as you would, for example, eating a meal at Golden Corral. I ask McDaniel when her last visit to the Broiler was.
“Oh man, it had to be when I was 10," she says. "I think steak was the big deal when we would go. It was cheap steak, and it always was thin cuts. It was probably just going to be well done. I mean, it wasn’t good when we went to it then, but it was available, and it was cheap.”
Early in 1963, down the street from where Lee Harvey Oswald would later attempt to watch a movie after a November day in Dallas, the Charco Broiler opened its doors. The restaurant's been in Cordova’s family since then. There were just three plates on the menu in 1963: The top sirloin steak, the rib-eye steak and the chop steak. The latter two cost less than $1.50. The chop steak, with a drink, was less than a dollar.
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“There were no french fries back then,” Cordova says. They still use a grill that's more than 50 years old, and they’re using the original oven to cook potatoes, too. Cordova started washing dishes at the restaurant when he was a kid, and the goal was always “nothing fancy.”
And therein lies the answer to what the Broiler is: It’s patience, consistency and "nothing fancy." Cordova can’t emphasize the non-fancy point enough, citing reviews that have pointed out flaws in his restaurant. He tells me they don’t do “peppercorn butter” or anything like that. How can we not respect a commitment to keeping it simple?
Maybe the food doesn’t need to explode your mind at Charco. It certainly doesn’t need food writers like me — the Broiler just wants to know if you’re doing OK. I feel like taking a shot of Bacos and grabbing a pie slice to-go. The line rebuilds itself, and more steaks hiss on the grill.
Charco Broiler is at 413 W. Jefferson Blvd.