There are few meals, no matter how good, for which I will wait in line. In fact, I can count them on two fingers, and they both call San Francisco home: 1) visionary State Bird Provisions, back in the days after it won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, and 2) Swan Oyster Depot, the truly legendary raw bar where the freshness and the service smack you ever so sweetly in the face.
Actually, now that I think about it, I couldn’t even bring myself to do that. My colleague and pal David Schmalz camped out the two and half hours on our behalf for SBP back in 2013, and I get to Swan before its 11am open so I don’t have to wait in line. (That still means waiting, but that’s what KCRW’s “Good Food” podcast is for.)
I was ready to revise my waiting-in-line policy the other day. That is how good the homemade flour tortillas are at El Charrito on West Market in Salinas.
I didn’t plan on it, because I figured I was beating the lunch rush at 11:15am, only there was a line out the door and down the sidewalk when I arrived.
I got in the queue and waited. For maybe a minute.
I figured all these hungry people were here for the crave-making burritos—chile verde, carnitas and costillas among the greatest hits—so perhaps I could just grab a pack of tortillas and bounce. So I slipped out of line to check with the guy directing traffic at the door.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re sold out!” It wasn’t even 11:30am.
So it goes with El Charrito, which has gone from quiet mom-and-pop neighborhood market to full-blown feeding frenzy from its 6am opening on.
A 2016 reinvention authored by third generation family shop manager Alex Moncada tripled the capacity to serve things like beef ranchero and pollo guisado, while adding an online ordering app, digital menu and ropes to guide the (fortunately) fast-moving line.
“We had a following,” he said at the time. “The small grocery store thing wasn’t working, so we concentrated on what we do best.”
What they do best are the time-honored family recipes from the restaurant’s 90-year-old matriarch Teresa Moncada.
“It’s really my grandma’s touch that made El Charrito what it is today,” Alex says. “Her and my grandpa, along with their children, made it a true family business that followed the American dream.”
Not to say El Charrito hasn’t continued to evolve. Of late the family has added biodegradable straws and forks, instituted a composting program and partnered with World Central Kitchen to feed vulnerable communities. During the height of the COVID pandemic, El Charrito provided 300 meals a week to help feed essential farmworkers. They also provided free lunches to frontline health workers.
Long before we knew what social distancing meant, chef Todd Fisher turned me onto the place. Like many, he loves the way they scale their burritos size-wise and price-wise.
“When I was a Salinas resident I have to say I was probably there too often,” he says. “Two Charrito burritos is perfect. Three? Well, it happens on occasion.”
He ranks the chile relleno number one on his list, with their spiciest salsa a mandatory additive. (Alex Mancada’s favorite is the breakfast burrito, with nopales or chorizo.)
But Fisher also understands the super power of the place: those glorious tortillas.
In so doing he reaffirms an important truth: You can have a great burrito or taco or quesadilla with a great tortilla, and you can have a bad burrito or taco or quesadilla with a great tortilla, but you can’t have a good version of a burrito or taco with a bad tortilla.
“At El Charrito, for me, it’s all about the flour tortilla, each one slightly irregular, a little thicker than store-bought, [with] a touch of toasted flour that still lingers to keep the tortillas separate,” Fisher says, “and the delicate tug that it takes to pull away from the burrito with a mouthful of deliciousness.”
I should disclose here that as much as I dislike waiting in line, I like tortillas twice as much in the other direction. A main reason I spend as much time in Mexico as I can is that any town in the country worth residing in has a tortilleria where they hand press and cook them by the hundreds every morning.
While pre-pandemic living in San Juan del Cabo, the climate, ocean and warmth of the people were key variables to a good existence. But the number one quality-of-life indicator for me was being able to dip into a family-run cinder-block shop next to the mercado municipal to buy three or four still-warm tortillas for a walking breakfast on the way to the beach or into downtown.
As of this weekend, El Charrito is debuting another upgrade, in the form of a patio that welcomes its first guests this weekend. Planters and climbing ivy, standing countertops and communal tables provide their own quality-of-life uptick.
The new outdoor seating coincides with the restaurant’s weekend barbacoa specials, served Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Slow-roasted in a secret blend of aromatics and spices, the barbacoa is another wholly inhalable item that comes served as a burrito, bowl or torta.
Alex Moncada seems relieved to have navigated the worst of the coronavirus complications (fingers crossed), thanks to loyal local support.
“We had longer lines during COVID due to staffing regulations and we appreciate the customers that continued to visit us—it was a tough year and we couldn’t have made it without the support from the community,” he says, adding, “We continue to work on creating a great customer experience.”
I love me a nice patio as much as the next human, and do the many who have come to love them more than ever amid COVID.
But when I come back to El Charrito, I won’t be there for the outside dining.
I’ll be there for the tortillas. Earlier than last time, and even willing to wait in line.
El Charrito is open 6am-5:30pm Monday-Saturday and 7am-5pm Sunday at 122 W. Market St., Salinas. More at (831) 424-9446 or elcharrito.com.