El Chingon fits well on the newly-revitalized Tennyson Street in Berkeley. A badass concept that relocated from a strip mall in Arvada to a converted cottage, it's a potent stew of classic Mexican cooking (from the recipes of executive chef David Lopez's grandma, who shares his title) and bistro-style elegance. Happy hour here, served daily from 3 to 6 p.m., is a nice little slice of what the place can do, so its a shame I was left a little cold by my visit, not by the joint itself, but by the lack of a festive crowd that's always a plus when searching for an after-work beverage and snacks.
El Chingon almost knocked me out of the game before I even got started. It's name is slang for "badass", "the greatest," or something much worse, depending on who you ask. The chorizo sliders ($7) are certainly chingon: three plus-size patties of Polidori chorizo piled with slaw and rich cilantro pesto, perched on puffy hamburger buns. The dish was heavy, a tower of fat and starch that could easily be billed as a main course (it appears as an appetizer for a few bucks more on the regular menu).
I was already slipping into new belt notches, but I had to see how El Chingon handled the basics. Happy hour tacos are $3, and you can choose from carnitas, carne asada, ground beef or chicken. Places like this live or die on the strength of their carnitas, and this taco passed the test. The meat was a tad dry, but silky and flavorful, smartly paired with a bit of cotija and some avocado salsa.
I was almost unable to move after this unexpected feast -- thankfully I could still tip a glass of La Gloria, one of a handful of eye-catching drinks that run $5 at happy hour. This was a smooth and seductive quasi-Margarita with cucumber-infused tequila and strawberry with a lightly salted rim. The wonderful cocktail program at El Chingon doesn't get enough respect, even as the bar takes the same culinary liberties as the food.
I left El Chingon with a full stomach and an empty heart. That's not the fault of the restaurant, it's because there were practically no paying customers coming in or out while I was there, giving the charming space an eerie feeling. Chalk that up to a fluke in timing; I'd love to give El Chingon another chance to wow me. "Badass" it was not, but sometimes "good" will do just fine.
Perfect for: If Tennyson isn't one of your regular nighttime haunts, drinks and snacks at El Chingon followed by a night of shopping and barhopping might change your mind.
Don't miss: While I didn't have the fortitude to sample the papas Chingon ($5 at happy hour), luxurious chile verde and cheese fries, they're on my list as the perfect thing to compliment the assortment of sinful libations.
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