“Señoritas prefer Carlita’s.”
“Muchachos like our tacos.”
“Where las margaritas make everyone bonitas.”
These are actual things printed on the impeccably designed menu at Carlita’s, the deep-Pearl tacos-and-cocktails spot from the folks that brought you Bartini and Brix Tavern. Maybe it’s unsurprising it comes from a company with the utilitarian handle Urban Restaurant Group.
It speaks to how well suited to its neighborhood Carlita’s is, though. Nice-but-not-interesting is sort of the theme of the Pearl district this far north (Northwest Northrup and 11th), and Carlita’s strikes a perfectly inhabitable balance: The space is clean but homey (read: bar, tables, and couches), neither too bright nor too dark.
And yet, despite the sheen and the address, these people aren’t actually breaking the bank by hanging out at Carlita’s, at least at happy hour. Everything you want to eat on this menu is available for cheaper at happy hour from 4-6 pm and 9 pm-close, every day.
Certain cocktails at happy hour were $6 instead of $10, which makes the house margaritas and palomas no-brainers: The margaritas are available “skinny,” which seems like a hilariously dated thing to print on a menu, yet I recommend this version, because in this case, “skinny” means “not sickly sweet.” If your ideal margarita is a little closer to candy, though, the fruity options will hit that spot (especially the lusciously pink strawberry option). The paloma is, on the other hand, a very bitter pink drink. This is no sweetened grapefruit soda—it’s actual, bitter grapefruit juice, tempered only by a subtly soft cinnamon-infused Aperol.
The cocktail deals don’t apply during the late night happy hour on Fridays and Saturdays (which is some Scrooge behavior), so you’ll find yourself exploring the non-HH drinks now and then. All $10, most of the drinks are too sweet (the Romper—bourbon, Benedictine, mint, lime, and agave is so sweetened it’s syrupy in texture), but the amaro-and-bourbon Kentucky Red Bird feels like a classic cocktail, and the Watermelon Frescas makes the absolute most of not overthinking tequila and watermelon agua fresca—it’s a solid, fruity cocktail that isn’t sweet or heavy.
You will get a drink at happy hour, because you have to get a drink to get happy hour food prices. (Slightly less Scroogey, but still Scroogey.) The screamingest deal on the HH menu is the free chips and salsa with any drink purchase. It’s $3.95 on the normal food menu (with one salsa, $5.95 with three, $7.95 with five), the chips are house-made, and crisp, light, with very little oiliness and plenty of lime and salt. The salsas are all excellent and very different from one another, although a hot-but-not-hellish ghost chili crema and a surprisingly spicy salsa verde stand out.
With those chips, consider the Carlita’s Skillet, a pile of braised beef short rib on black beans with cheese, cilantro, and a chipotle crema. This dish, $8.95 at happy hour, combined with the free chips and $6 cocktails, makes Carlita’s a must-hit after-work hangout. (Pro-tip: The skillet’s fatty and smoky-sweet enough to temper the ghost chili crema, making for a great pairing.)
The tacos are, of course, the star of the show, but they’re almost too big to be snacks, and too messy to be shareable. They’re worth doing if you’re in for more than just a drink and a bite. The Piedmontese short rib is as much a standout in a taco as on top of the skillet, with a green mole and crisp radish topping; carne asada is a knockout with mushrooms and tomatoes; and a rich pork belly is delicious, though not quite balanced by an apple/fennel slaw and buttermilk creme fraîche. The vegetarian options feel like afterthoughts, the kind of thing where a chef goes, “What do vegetarians like? Kale?” and tries to make it seem purposeful by using “special” kale. The black kale and spinach taco is really a poblano pepper taco, which is as bland as it sounds, and the mushroom taco feels like a carne asada taco without the steak.
Between happy hours, the tacos jump a dollar in price to $4 or three for $10 (which, remember, is actually a steal because they’re huge) and the skillet goes to $11.95 and starts to feel slightly less unmissable as it competes with $12.95 ceviche. Luckily for us, though, only three hours of the weekday aren’t happy at Carlita’s. From 4-6 pm and from 9 pm and on, the Pearl may have finally found a solid beacon to pull people all the way to Northrup.