Located on a dusty strip of West Market Street in Salinas, California, El Charrito might not immediately stand out from the surrounding homes and businesses. But a few telltale signs hint at the restaurant’s popularity. A parking lot wraps around three sides of the standalone building — and at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, it’s packed with muddy work trucks and passenger vehicles. A steady stream of cars shuffles in and out of the parking spots.
Stepping into the yellow building for the first time can be confusing. There are no tables and chairs to speak of, as El Charrito is strictly to-go, save for an outdoor patio that serves as a dining room in a pinch. Online orders pile up on a counter by the door, and delivery drivers rush in to snap up bags of food. Walk farther in and you’ll find the snaking line moving smoothly, a testament to the professionalism of those on the El Charrito team, who work at a counter lined with five steam tables.
Behind panes of glass, pans of burrito fillings like carne asada, pollo guisado, and chile colorado await. Employees take orders in Spanish and English, everyone meeting on the common ground and language of burritos. Place an order, and watch as a tortilla gets hit with a brushstroke of beans, a ladleful of rice, and a choice of meat — 12 options in all — plus a dash of salsa to top. The finished products are smaller, more compact than those of the Mission District, with the ends folded up, covering the tortilla seam and holding the ingredients in, then wrapped in parchment paper.
El Charrito’s origin story begins with Teresa and Jose Moncada, who immigrated to Salinas in the early 1960s from their hometown of Santa Fe del Río, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The couple were in their mid-30s when they made the move to California and found work in the packing sheds of Central Valley farms. They raised their family here in the States, but it wasn’t until 1981 that their son, who was by then an adult, saw the Market Street grocery store for sale and encouraged his parents to buy it. The Moncadas had once owned a small convenience store in Mexico, where they would sell groceries while Teresa baked and sold bread. It seemed like a good move for the family to pitch in and run this Salinas store together.
As Kenya Moncada puts it today, it wasn’t necessarily her grandparents’ dream to own another store like the one they left behind in Mexico. But El Charrito represented an opportunity.
The Moncadas kept the shop’s original name, El Charrito, or “Little Cowboy,” along with the meat counter and, notably, a steam table where Teresa began serving the recipes she’d been cooking for family since she was young. She also began making and selling bread, flour tortillas, beans, rice, chile verde, chile colorado, and bistec ranchero. The family would prepare fresh masa for tamales, too, luring in customers from farther away, since well-made, fresh masa was difficult to find.
Despite that, the deli wasn’t quite a highlight for customers. As Kenya recalls, the family had to offer free samples in order to entice customers. Meanwhile, the grocery store side of the business, which sold produce and staples that couldn’t be found anywhere else in town, such as dried chiles or Abuelita hot chocolate, grew, expanding to six stores throughout Salinas and nearby Watsonville. (Due to an influx of other Mexican groceries opening in the area, by 2010 the Moncada family had sold off all the other stores, save for the Market Street location in Salinas.)
Still, slowly but surely, the burritos began to take off within the Salinas community. One major draw: the tortillas. Tender and with a hint of flour, they somehow achieve a pillowy texture. Every morning, as early as 4 a.m., an employee makes the flour tortillas from scratch, adding the ingredients to a hulking, industrial-sized mixer. The dough is then processed through a metal dough rounder, which divides and rolls the balls before they’re placed onto a speed rack to rest. As the staff readies for opening, the cooking process begins and continues throughout the day: A trio of workers steadily rotates through stations that first see each ball of dough flattened and tossed in flour before being pushed through a tabletop roller, which flattens it into shape. The discs are then stretched a bit further before being placed onto the flat-top grill in groups of 10, each flipped as the tortilla slightly puffs and achieves charred spots across its face.
The tortillas have achieved legendary status among locals. Lines start forming outside the store as early as 5:40 a.m., 20 minutes ahead of El Charrito’s 6 a.m. opening. Customers queue up to ensure they’ll be able to snag a pack of 10, which can sell out as early as 6:10 a.m., Kenya says. Fights have broken out over their flour tortillas, she swears: “That’s why we had to limit them,” Kenya says. “Two’s the limit.”
The store only prepares a limited supply of tortillas specifically for retail in the morning, and in the afternoon sells the surplus from that day. When they run out, a sign is placed by the cash register that reads, “Sorry, we’re out of tortillas.”
But delicious tortillas are nothing without fillings, and El Charrito has that side of the equation down, too. It’s all part of what Kenya’s husband has dubbed “slow-fast food” — or food that’s made for customers at a rapid pace, but incorporates ingredients that can’t be rushed in cooking. The chile verde is a two-day process; the chorizo must marinate overnight; and then there’s the three-hour family recipe for the beans. “It’s served so quickly and conveniently,” Kenya says, “but it takes a really long time and it’s a lot of work to make the food.”
For instance, the eggs in the breakfast burritos are cracked by hand, just the way Kenya’s grandmother did it. Other things also follow her grandmother’s precise ways, such as the cuts of meat. The family employs two full-time butchers, who’ve worked with the Moncadas for years, slicing and trimming the meat the way Teresa prefers, even grinding meat fresh for the aforementioned chorizo.
Kenya says the chile verde, too, is still cooked specifically in her grandmother’s style. The process starts the day before, with the restaurant’s chef making chile verde salsa with oven-roasted chiles, tomatillos, jalapenos, and serrano peppers, before simmering the ingredients together for two hours. The following day, the chef browns the pork twice, per Teresa’s instructions, until the meat is crispy. In a skillet, he simmers the salsa before throwing the meat into the sauce for about 45 minutes. “Pretty much the majority of his day is the rice and the chile verde,” Kenya says. “He does not stop making it.”
It’s this dedication to using whole ingredients and cooking by hand that makes each El Charrito burrito sing. Kenya could go on and on about how each part of every burrito demonstrates the restaurant’s care and commitment to quality: They cook their rice in chicken broth made from scratch; there’s one person on staff who has dedicated 12 years to battering and frying 90 chile rellenos each day because the restaurant needs plenty of the stuffed pasilla chile to fulfill burrito orders.
But even as El Charrito’s commitment to cooking the old-school way has attracted eager crowds, it’s also hindered the business’s growth.
In 2016, Kenya’s brother, Alex Moncada, returned home to Salinas from San Francisco, to help modernize the family business. The siblings decided the family should focus on what had become the market’s most popular product: the burrito. They removed the shelves of groceries and streamlined the recipe processes put in place by their grandmother — although they were met with some resistance.
In one instance, Kenya and Alex wanted to install commercial kitchen equipment to meet the growing demand. “We were constantly selling out of chile verde; we were constantly selling out of rice,” Kenya says. “And it’s because they used to make it in these 20-inch braisers over the stovetop — there was no way we could keep up with demand if we were making it like that.”
Still, their grandmother, who managed the kitchen until she retired two years ago, at 91, was unsure about the changes, including the move to install tilt skillets to cook the chile verde, which allows the kitchen to make three times as much for the day. “She was afraid that it would compromise the taste,” Kenya says. Ultimately the grandkids won out. “We had to test dozens and dozens of batches until she was finally content,” Kenya says.
The family business has since ramped up to selling about 750 burritos a day to walk-in customers, as well as an additional 300 to 500 burritos from daily online sales via the store’s app. (Alex created the online ordering app before the pandemic struck — another move toward modernization from the Moncada grandchildren.) The family opened a second location in September 2022, an El Charrito Express, about 18 miles away in Monterey.
The success is something Kenya’s grandfather, who passed away 10 years ago, could never have imagined, she says. “I remember my grandfather saying, ‘If we ever sell 250 burritos, we are good. We’re gonna be okay,’” Kenya says. “And we have surpassed that and no one could have expected this. It’s just pretty crazy and we’re so thankful to our community for this continued support.”