I had been wanting to hit up El Chingon on Tennyson Street for a while now, but the last time I was in the Berkeley neighborhood was on a Monday — El Chingon's only day closed — so I was sadly out of luck. More recently, on a Sunday afternoon, I found my way back in search of some used outerwear at Feral. And as I picked through the racks of winter gear, my stomach rumbled for something warm, maybe spicy — and El Chingon was there to hit the spot.
A quick four-block jaunt brought me to El Chingon's pleasant little porch attached to what was once a residential cottage — one of only a few left on Tennyson Street, which has been mostly consumed by pricey (and ugly) condos. A chalkboard sign posted outside the door politely asked us to wait to be seated. Given the vast spacing of the four available tables inside the place, it was clear to me that El Chingon has been taking COVID-19 seriously. That and the day's briskness gave me the first occasion since the pandemic began to consider sitting inside rather than on the usually alluring outdoor patios.
As my companion and I were led to a corner booth, I wondered whether the restaurant was taking the time to redecorate, since most of the walls were bare and white, though the bar and a center wall still sported lovely, colorful tile.
We began by choosing a few drinks from the happy hour menu and some chips and guacamole to tide us over while perusing the menu. If you go, be sure to ask about happy hour specials, as El Chingon's website might not be up to date. We were offered discounted drinks but not food, so I couldn't get the $3 flautas and carnitas sliders — not to mention the famed four-hour pork-belly chicharrones — mentioned online.
No matter; I realized this left me free to order anything on the menu, including chef (and the abuelita of El Chingon) Gloria Nuñez’s famed chiles rellenos. As I put in the order, I also spotted the posole and couldn’t help but add a small bowl, just the right dish to usher in winter. As my cocktail, which had a distinct blue "Gatorade frost" tint, was set in front of me, my friend almost slurped down his entire cucumber-strawberry margarita before I could get a taste. But as the fresh flavor of summer lingered, I realized that he had been trying to get every last sip he could of the season.
My rellenos arrived first, with the posole following immediately after, allowing me to alternate bites of the two dishes. The Berkshire pork and hominy posole landed somewhere between a soup and a stew in thickness, and I delighted in the contrast between that and the fat strings of goopy Oaxacan cheese oozing from each bite of the first chile relleno. A fluffy layer of fried egg batter surrounding the green chile soaked up the tomato-based sauce beneath. Alongside the cheese-filled chile was another stuffed with ground beef, which packed far more flavor than I expected. I slurped posole and scooped up bites of relleno like a starving mad woman.
I almost neglected to offer my companion a bite, until I saw him lustily looking after my selections. To keep the peace, I traded a few bites for his order of enchiladas before sneakily sliding my own plate back in my direction. He didn’t seem to mind, as he proceeded to finish every last tidbit on his own plate before turning back to the guac and chips.
By the time we got the check, I was fully invested in Gloria’s kitchen magic. I might have expected a little more heat, and I did miss the possibility of happy hour nibbles. But for a few discounted cocktails and Mexican cooking with this sort of talent behind it, I hope these generations of Nuñez and her family can keep things alive on Tennyson Street.
El Chingon is located at 4326 Tennyson Street and offers happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Call 303-248-3641 or visit the restaurant's website for menus, details and takeout orders. Because the dining room at El Chingon is so small, COVID-related restrictions could push the restaurant back to a takeout-only model, but that's still a great option for both food and drinks.
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