5837 N. Mesa St.
El Paso, TX
Charcoaler Drive-In has a long history in El Paso, and originally had locations on Montana as well as the present location on Mesa. It was definitely one of my favorite places for hamburgers in town, and was modeled after the Charcoal Oven in Oklahoma City which was one of my frequent haunts during high school and afterwards. The original owners of Charcoaler were friends of the people who operated the OKC Charcoal Oven, and apparently there was a sharing of the methodology used to cook the burgers and to make the barbecue sauce which is popular at the Charcoaler.
Both of these restaurants were drive-through only, and they provided awnings where you could eat in the car. The Charcoal Oven in Oklahoma City is now closed, and at about the same time the Charcoaler in El Paso closed as well. The current Charcoaler reopened with a new owner, and has adopted what I think is a better restaurant model where there is now an indoor dining room in addition to the original awnings. There is also an outdoor patio which I think was there all along. The dining room and patio have picnic tables which I find very hard to negotiate, but at least it is a step in the right direction (and the continued success of some of the Charcoal Oven’s competitors in Oklahoma City demonstrates that many find the indoor dining room concept more comfortable than having to eat in the car).
The flavor of charcoal broiled burgers, though, is the main attraction of Charcoaler and similar restaurants. At Charcoaler you get the flavor of hamburgers cooked over charcoal (although I do not know the exact process they use). In Oklahoma City they use natural gas to augment the cooking process, and I assume the same is done here. The bottom line is that you do not get the same flavor as with hamburgers that are cooked on the normal type of flat grill.
There is still a drive-through entrance at the restaurant where you can order from the car, and the food is the same whether it get it the traditional way or from the new sit-down dining room which you can access through what used to be the exit only driveway to Mesa Street. I much prefer the sit-down arrangement, mainly because you place your order directly with a person rather than through a speaker. Charcoaler has a second location on Airway Boulevard which I have not tried, but which I assume has a dining room as well.
When the original Charcoaler closed I thought it was gone forever, but the new owner who revived the restaurant has fortunately kept the same food, and seems to have expanded the menu a little bit while keeping all the old classics. The main difference I find now is in the size of the hamburgers. Although a burger and fries would technically put this restaurant in the $ cost category, I need two sandwiches (two burgers, a burger and another sandwich, etc.) to feel full. This puts it in the $$ category, which I think is realistic for what most customers will spend.
The double burger is also very popular, and I think even with a drink and fries would keep it in the $ category. The double burger still has a small bun, though, and I prefer to have two of the small sandwiches which would not only have more bun but also more of the barbecue sauce or other toppings which are one of the big reasons I come here. In any case, the difference in price is not that great.
The Hamburger is the main attraction here. I find both the charcoal broiled style of cooking and the barbecue sauce to make it a special treat. The one shown in the photo is the “Junior Hamburger” (with a single patty). Its diameter is not much larger than the container of cole slaw I ordered, but it does have a good flavor.
The restaurant tries to encourage people to order a double patty because this will be more filling, but it is still on the same sized bun. Whether I get a single or a double, though, I have always ordered them with the barbecue sauce. This sauce is much like the sauce used in many Oklahoma City hamburger restaurants, but I believe its actual origin was the (now closed) Charcoal Oven.
There is always the traditional mustard, mayonnaise, etc. available for those who prefer it this way.
For a side dish I recommend the French Fries. I did not order this on my recent visits but I had a sample courtesy of my dining companion, and I was impressed by the flavor and lack of greasiness.
The Cole Slaw I ordered was a little lackluster in the flavor department and of course it will not fill you up the way the french fries will do. I suppose it is more healthy, but the issue for me is that there are many restaurants in El Paso that have better cole slaw than here, but only a small number that have better fries.
A single patty burger does not seem to be enough food, and for me a hot dog is just enough extra to make this a full meal. Because of the charcoal broiling I think this is a better tasting hot dog than most. It is good with either the barbecue sauce or the chili (this is Texas style chili rather than the “chile” they have in New Mexico).
I tried the Black Bean Veggie Burger, but to me there were so many things wrong with it that it is likely off of my list of possible choices in the future. On the flavor I think there was something wrong with the way it was composed–probably all the ingredients were good but the way they were combined was not quite right. I like black beans as a filler in a veggie burger but perhaps there was a little too much of it here. The consistency was really the worst part, though, because it fell apart and did not hold together as a patty should. The patty had a very sharp taste which I found to be improved by the barbecue sauce which I ordered as a topping.
The other choices from the menu are limited but they do have chicken and fish sandwiches, as well as caldillo and burritos.
My only holdover recommendation from the old restaurant that I have not tried at the new one is the milk shake, but the iced tea is very good as well (and it is easy to get refills when you eat in the dining room or the patio). Theoretically those using the drive-through get free refills on tea or soft drinks as well, but I found the logistics of it to be a little difficult.
I believe the food is the same as it was at the “old” Charcoaler, except for the fact that the sandwiches are smaller. Many like the double burger, but an alternative would be to get two small sandwiches if you want to get what I consider to me a normal sized meal.
Although the drive-through lane has been the way people have been placing their orders since the restaurant opened, I believe the new indoor dining room which opened in summer 2019 makes Charcoaler much more attractive and much more customer friendly. For me the best choice here is the hamburger (and this is what most people order), but there are still many variables with the toppings, side orders, and choices of other sandwiches that make the dining room an easier way to order as well as likely a more comfortable dining experience.
I grew up with the type of charcoal broiled burgers they serve here. The more I travel, though, the more I find this style of burger to still be one of the best, and I am happy that it is available in El Paso.