It’s the time of year when restaurants start announcing closings. The most recent—and possibly most surprising—loss came last week. Enrique Lozano, owner-chef of James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist El Charlatan Taqueria y Ramen-ya in Socorro, just outside El Paso, announced on Instagram that his restaurant is closed indefinitely.

Such language is often employed to let the regulars down easy, and allow for a glimmer of hope. But a conversation with Lozano left me with no doubts about El Charlatan’s fate—the decision to close was a matter of when, not if.

Lozano told me his restaurant was essentially a one-man operation. He handled the shift schedules, payroll, deliveries, and accounting, but admits his main focus was on cooking the food and taking care of his staff. In doing so, he got behind on taxes and fees to the state. “I kept on putting off the sales-tax percentage payments,” Lozano told me over the phone. “With the small margins that we have, we didn’t have a way to make ends meet.” 

With the closure, the El Paso area lost one of its most exciting dining establishments that contributed to making its food scene one of the best in Texas. In fact, I believe El Charlatan was one of the best restaurants in the state, and a place El Paso needed. But it wasn’t just being long-listed for a James Beard award that made El Charlatan great. 

The Licon cheese appetizer.
The Licon cheese appetizer. Photograph by José R. Ralat

El Charlatan’s excellence was evident in its unique food, setting, and service. The restaurant served a deceptively simple appetizer of Licon Dairy’s queso asadero, allowing the local cheese to shine in all of its milky, melting goodness. The fragrant chicken chimole taco was served on a nixtamalized corn tortilla from Molino Azquil in Juárez, and featured fried chicken seasoned with togarashi and soaked in a dark, earthy chimole. The sides of red and green salsas added tart and spicy notes. 

Lozano also mixed Mexican and Japanese ingredients in ramen dishes, such as the Campechano, bobbing with pork-belly pastor, togarashi-seasoned chicken, and chiles toreados. The togarashi imbued a bright and nutty taste to the juicy poultry, while the chiles gave the dish spice. And for dessert, the smoked sweet potatoes dressed with candied nuts, miso caramel, and a soy meringue offered a memorable end to any meal. The dining experience was heightened by the environment. Inside the dimly lit historic adobe structure on the Old Mission Trail, every server was ready to attend with refills or recommendations. 

Although Lozano admitted culpability, El Charlatan closed for several reasons, including two issues many restaurants in Texas are facing: rising food and labor costs. Both have increased more than 20 percent across the state compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Texas Restaurant Association. “How are you going to come in one day and pay seventeen dollars for ramen and the next day pay eighteen dollars?” Lozano said. “I think it definitely has something to do with it.” Another element to the closure was a decrease in diners. The TRA also reported that there were 3 to 5 percent fewer diners in 2023 than in 2022.

Its location never helped. El Paso is in the farthest corner of West Texas, and Socorro, a small town of 36,000 residents, is southeast of the city, far from major highways. The Sun City is a drag to get to for most Texans. It’s also commonly overlooked or downright forgotten by travel or food writers. Remembering a tiny speck of a burg twenty minutes from El Paso is understandably difficult, but El Charlatan helped make the area a destination. Still, the odds were against the restaurant from the start.

Then there is the fact that 60 percent of restaurants close within their first year, and 80 percent close within the first five years, according to industry estimates. El Charlatan was two years old when Lozano turned off the lights for good.

He began to consider El Charlatan’s sustainability in October. Lozano says the state gave him an ultimatum to pay the approximately $40,000 in overdue taxes or be locked out. He struggled to decide whether to close immediately or explore his options. Lozano talked to close friends about a loan, but that would put him further in debt and only delay the inevitable. “It would give [El Charlatan] another six months,” Lozano said. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll call them in another six months or three months or whatever, you know, but I feel like the best decision was to just let it go.”

This isn’t the end of Lozano’s cooking career, though. Soon, he will be teaching at a new culinary school at Southwest University in El Paso and recruiting for and managing a local commissary kitchen. In January, he’ll take another teaching job at a school in Juárez. Lozano will also operate monthly taco pop-ups, like the one he did recently with El Tiger Taqueria. He’s not given up on the idea of owning another restaurant, either. Lozano says he’s learned his lesson and vows not to make the same mistakes again: “Hopefully, it will be better next time.”