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Chicken tingas tacos

It’s natural to think of cuisines in national terms. We do it all the time when making dinner plans. What are you in the mood for tonight? Italian? Chinese? Indian? Colt Taylor, chef and owner of Los Charros Cantina in Essex, breaks it down even further. He’s taking taste buds on an educational tour of Mexico. And it’s a master class.

There’s no better example than his salsa flight ($8), a uniquely conceived must-order for any first-time customer. Seven small bowls of fresh salsa representing seven regions of Mexico are arranged in order of heat (from avocado to habanero) with seven mini-spoons and housemade tortilla chips that are thick, light and crispy. Mouth and mind are at full attention.

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The PoCo Loco Latte (front) and the Los Charros margarita

“You can’t go to the Southwest and New England and say, these are American foods,” Taylor says. “It doesn’t do it justice. This is Southwestern cuisine, this is New England cuisine. That’s more reasonable. And the same thing holds true to Mexico.” Melty, bubbly queso fundido — my search for the all-time comfort food now over — comes with soft, warm flour tortillas and is served three ways. The topping of your choice rests on a bed of melted cheese and indicates the region: northern (chorizo, $10), southern (shishito peppers, $12) and Mexico City (mushrooms, $13).

I had high expectations for the elote con queso (Mexican street corn on the cob, $5), a personal favorite, and Taylor delivers in spades. But the unexpected highlight of the meal is the wheatberry esquites ($5). Fresh corn, wheat berries and cream. That’s it. It’s essentially a creamed grain salad. But it’s transformative. The texture, the flavor, everything about it is glorious. “Whenever you think you have enough cream, you add more cream,” Taylor says. “Just keep reducing it down.”

To warm up properly on this cold December night (the nearby Essex Steam Train is lit up beautifully for Christmas), a bowl of pazole ($7) is imperative. Described by Taylor as “street food at its finest,” pazole is the homestyle chicken soup of Mexico. Taylor’s version is topped with crispy hominy, lime and smoked ancho chili powder, and it fills the stomach, soul and senses.

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Owner and chef Colt Taylor

Los Charros opened in October in the building that also houses The Essex, Taylor’s fine-dining establishment on Main Street in Centerbrook that launched back in 2017. Taylor, at 35 already an accomplished and celebrated chef, grew up in Berlin and Essex. He walked away from opening his own spot in Miami and came home when his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His father is his business partner. His mother, an artist, is responsible for all the artwork in the building. And while his Miami plans didn’t pan out, his Essex plans have gone off without a hitch.

Two restaurants with one open kitchen. White tablecloths and fine dining at The Essex, authentic Mexican with a fun vibe at Los Charros. But it wasn’t Taylor who chose the cuisine of the second restaurant. It was his customers. The Essex had theme nights — burgers and beer, tacos and tequila — and Taylor collected the data. If he was going to dedicate 70 percent of his total space to one concept, it had to be right. So I can tell you how great the tacos ($10-$14) are — I sampled the fluke tempura, carne asada, shrimp curtido, and the otherworldly short rib barbacoa — but the numbers speak for themselves. Taco night brought in nearly triple the revenue of any other theme.

“Each side fulfills what the market needs,” Taylor says. Top chefs like Jenner Tomaska are on tap to prepare guest dinners this year at The Essex. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to do those kinds of concepts, while on the other side [at Los Charros] it’s just this constant, energetic fun.”

This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Send us your feedback on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag, or email editor@connecticutmag.com.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.