Orále Essay

What was once one hot table with five trays of chile verde, chile rellenos and beef ranchero is now three with 15. Beverages and chips are available, as are packs of the storied tortillas.

One self-imposed rule of this column: Don’t write about chains, because there are far too many family-owned restaurants that merit this space, which is finite.

That doesn’t mean the rule isn’t broken. When thousands lost their animal-style minds over In-N-Out finally opening in Seaside this year, I monitored the madness and threw in some secret menu insights. (It even made my top food-and-drink stories of the year, up at www.mcweekly.com/edible.)

Last week, I set a new record by mentioning six different chains. That included Denny’s and KFC, in the context of OMFG. Denny’s now gives $1 to Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for each purchase of a slice of deep-fried cheesecake. (The unfried version delivers 605 calories and 20 grams of saturated fat.) KFC now does the same $1 donation for each Mega Jug of soda – 64 ounces, 800 calories and 216 grams of sugar in a plastic bucket with a handle.

The other chains mentioned last week have triggered the only local food craze in the last decade, if not longer, that’s comparable to In-N-Out’s. In Marina Dunes shopping complex, cult-momentum chains SmashburgerTeriyaki Madness and Blaze Pizza all opened in the last week. (That’s part of my top story #6.)

When I stopped by Sunday – before noon – Smashburger already had a line to the door. The “fast” half of fast casual needs a revision. It took 28 minutes to get a Reese’s peanut butter milkshake ($4.59) and “avocado club” ($5.39 for a regular). That wait gave me enough time to 1) Attempt a “Smash-and-dash” order online – despite signs on the door, it’s not active; 2) Head down the complex to venture a yakisoba order at Teriyaki Madness – the wait there was 30 minutes; and 3) Peek into Blaze, where staff was in training and a sign on the window promised a free custom pizza Dec. 16 for anyone throwing love on social media.

When I got back to Smashburger, the line reached further around the inner perimeter of the space, making for a claustrophobic feeling and collisions with customers low on spatial awareness. The shake was pleasantly thin and delicious, the burger above average. Neither are enough for me to revisit. Not that Smash leadership will mind. They’re busy opening outposts in Panama and Saudi Arabia.

After last week’s coverage, a mindful Marina resident called me out. “Mr. Anderson refers to Marina as a ‘food desert.’ A food desert is generally described as an area that lacks access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods due to lack of grocery stores, farmers markets and healthy providers usually occurring in impoverished areas. Marina does have a farmers market every Sunday and several grocery stores that do, in fact, sell fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthful items. Most of them even located within walking distance of a lot of residents.”

Sophia Carmellini-Campos, well put. I took an unfair linguistic liberty.

“While I am excited to see all the new additions going in at the Dunes,” she continued, “a bunch of chain restaurants would hardly be a solution, even if Marina was a food desert.” Amen. At least the new spots provide jobs, options for shoppers who previously depended on Target popcorn and far fresher alternatives to traditional fast food.

And fortunately, I have more benevolent “fast-casual” food news. As Chipotle hires staff to move in across the parking lot from Smashburger, an anti-Chipotle is blowing up in the heart of Salinas.

For 35 years, the Moncada family has run El Charrito Market (424-9446) at 122 W. Market St., Salinas as a classic old-school mom-and-pop Latino mercado – general supplies on the shelves and abuelita’s recipes at the hot counter.

The reasons it became a cult hit weren’t the canned frijoles and discount detergent but the divine homemade flour tortillas and slow-stewed chile verde. Chef Todd Fisher, of endless culinary adventures (and now of Tarpy’s Roadhouse), gives voice to a tribe of people who love it, and swears by the salsa muy picoso and beef ranchero, among other things.

“The chile relleno burrito is the best thing you can put down your gullet,” he says. “It’s just a killer spot.”

Weekly columnist and Salinas resident Mary Duan is a big fan too. “The burritos are sized just right – lengthwise and girthwise and pricewise,” she says. “Their verde is the best in the county and if they could figure out how to make every bite exactly like the final bite – that soft tortilla end and the spicy sauce nuzzled inside – they could be billionaires.”

As I discovered on a recent pilgrimage inspired by a rec from lowrider enthusiast Juan Espinoza of Deadend Magazine, El Charrito recently underwent a dramatic change. The shelves are gone, replaced by a long and fast-moving line. The hot counter has tripled in size. The digital menu on flatscreens is streamlined for customers to pick torta ($5.49), burrito ($3.19-$3.49) or plate ($6.99), and a meat, salsas and add-ons. Then visitors are whisked away to the register and out to the dirt parking lot to scarf it down. (Plans for pavement and a patio are in the pipeline.) Orders via Charrito’s smartphone app puts Smashburger’s online options to shame.

The individual driving the change is Alex Mendez, 32, fresh off a stint in San Francisco finance. “We had a following,” he says. “The small grocery store thing wasn’t working, so we concentrated on what we do best.”

So, Ms. Sophia Carmellini-Campos, how about a burrito on me?

QUICKBITES

  • The new Bagel Kitchen (324-4330) and its handmade kettle-boiled bagels, baked fresh every morning, observes its grand opening and ribbon-cutting 5-6pm Thursday, Dec. 15, in the Forest Hill Shopping Center (1132 Forest Ave.).
  • Exec Chef David Baron leads a super group of chefs for a special “Shut Up and Cook” dinner Monday, Dec. 19, at Casanova in Carmel ($79, 238-0418). His friends and S.F. chefs Shawn Naputi from Prubechu and Manfred Wrembel from Huxley join him in creating a five-course dinner with appetizers. Accompanying them: mixologist Elmer Dullafrom Salare Restaurant in Seattle, with a customized pairing ($49 optional).
  • The Indian boom continues. After Aabhar Indian Cuisine and Ambrosia Cannery Row popped up last monthSaffron Cafe is coming soon to the former Pinkberry on Alvarado.
  • Homespun Marina spot Coffee Mia has rolled out some new menu items like the “Hulk” sandwich ($8.75).
  • Twisted Roots Vineyard (594-8282) now crafts hard cider using a combination of five different apples.
  • Carmel Pizza Factory (626-5432) celebrates its 15th year by offering a large pizza for $15 throughout the month.
  • Monterey County Health Department is advising residents to take caution with wild mushroom foraging as local hospitals have seen an increase in poisonings.
  • Smith Family Wines just brought on board industry veteran Larry Brooks to lead their winemaking program. Brooks has worked for Acacia WineryChalone Wine Group andTolosa Winery.
  • The former McDonald’s in Pacific Grove near Save Mart has been divided into two businesses. One remains TBD, the other will be a… Starbucks.
  • Noon-6pm Sunday, Dec. 18, Monterey Bay American Poolplayers Association holds its second annual Holiday 9-Ball Tournament and Toy/Food Drive benefitting theSalvation Army of the Monterey Peninsula at Easy Street Billiards ($40 includes tournament entry, dinner, drink and donation). Pre-register via 455-6864.
  • Alfred Adler: “Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words.”

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(1) comment

Debbie Hale

Uh, oh. Now I will never be able to get through the El Charrito line during lunch hour. Secret: online ordering via Chowhound.

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