Charlie's Front and Back Door
I liked it both ways
This place is a dive. And I mean that in a good way—unpretentious and broken-in like a favorite pair of scuffed boots.
The cozily dim restaurant (front) and bar (back) are separated by a kitchen that serves both rooms. Charlie's Front Door is an eatery that appears to cater to old friends—as in receiving Social Security—and young families. A man named Jamie stopped at each table on both of my visits, patting shoulders and asking by name how everyone was doing. Even though I missed out on first-name-basis familiarity, Jamie stopped to make sure I was enjoying my meal. But it may well have been because he felt sorry for me, the only solo diner in the joint. (For the record, I enjoy eating alone and I do have people who love me. They're just too busy to have dinner with me.)
On my first visit, I ordered sour cream enchiladas with chicken. Amid a sea of red and green sauces that drown platters across this state, these creamy enchiladas stirred something deep inside me. If Charlie's, an old standby, can prominently feature these twists in such a fiercely traditional dish, it gives me hope that other restaurants will start taking liberties with theirs. Charlie's enchiladas were huge and filling. Though the sauce was white, green chile still made a showing—and a rather powerful one at that. The only blunder was the cheese (also white): A too thick blanketing muted the flavors of the dish's less liberal ingredients. My enchiladas came with a sidecar of two sopaipillas (and a few tortilla chips that hitched a ride from another basket). The sopaipillas were fluffy and pillow-like, though they somehow lacked that slightly sweet fried-dough flavor.
It was such pure eating pleasure that I didn't bother picking it apart from a culinary point of view; I simply indulged.
The next time I dropped in Charlie's, I brought a friend along and ventured through the rear portal, actually located on the building's side. Charlie's back end is more a bar than restaurant, and so is even dimmer and more worn. So were many of the patrons, including a couple I'll assume was in love. All evening, an elderly “gentleman” whispered, uh, sweet nothings to a girl we at first thought was young until we saw her up close.
Jamie again made an appearance, doing a loop through the bar chatting up regulars. We started on chips with salsa, guacamole and queso. Though the chips weren't anything extraordinary, our salsa was on the spicy side and had a bold tomato flavor. I was especially sold on the guacamole. Thick, rich and smooth, it had a pure avocado taste. We could have skipped the queso, which was no different than what comes out of a Tostitos jar.
I just wasn't into my order of chile rellenos. They were mushy. My companion, a lifelong relleno fan, echoed my sentiments. Served with fideos noodles—which, on their own, I did like—instead of rice, the whole entrée came off as limp and flaccid.
An "Indian burger," on the other hand, was damn hedonistic. The enormous patty served between deflated sopaipillas was so messy it sent juices running down my arm. It was such pure eating pleasure that I didn't bother picking it apart from a culinary point of view; I simply indulged.
Though it's not shiny and polished, Charlie's is still a gem. Both doors open to a close-knit, family feel. One waitress called me “hon”; another raised her eyebrow at our raucous conversation, then leaned in to contribute her own two cents. Its divided building might suggest otherwise, but Charlie's is downright harmonious in serving good, blue-collar food and drink.
The Alibi recommends:
• Sour cream-chicken enchiladas
• Indian burger
• A cold beer to help you get in touch with your working-class roots
Charlie's Front and Back Door, 8224 Menaul NE, 294-3130. Front Door hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-9 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Back Door hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. every day. Price range: $8 (open face sandwich) to $14 (steak and enchiladas). Ambience: Neighborhood tavern you can take the kids to. Credit cards, booze, large parties.