Toast Masters

Brandon and Erica Domingos are the founders of Toasted Artisan Grilled Cheese, a pandemic-era food business that outgrew its mobile lifestyle and is putting down roots.

The pandemic has not been kind to the restaurant industry. So it’s encouraging to run across a new restaurant that’s expanding, not contracting. This business unicorn is called Toasted and it just opened in Carmel Valley’s Mid Valley Shopping Center, next to the UPS Store. And it’s already thriving.

Toasted is the love child of Erica and Brandon Domingos, who established their business in January 2020 and began serving at farmers markets in Salinas in September.

After more than two years, getting off the road and settling into a new brick-and-mortar location was no small undertaking. It was one that was inspired by the Monterey County Health Department, whose regulations mandate that food trucks must also maintain a commissary kitchen. Since these kitchens are in short supply, this requirement makes the work and expense of maintaining a food truck that much more difficult. After several stints in kitchens that were either too expensive, too geographically undesirable or whose availability was just too unpredictable, the Domingos decided to take their show off the road and set up permanent digs.

The new space is a lot like the Domingos themselves: warm, inviting and open. There are long tables and counter seating that invite the connection of sharing a meal with old or new friends, and the decor features personal touches like a chandelier Erica made out of a plow tree and an antique baker’s paddle. “I don’t like to go into places where the kitchen is a cave, and you don’t know what’s going on back there,” Erica says. “We wanted this place to be open and transparent. You can see us cooking in the kitchen. We want people to come in and be a part of this with us. We’re old-school like that.”

“As our reputation grew, people were constantly reaching out to us asking where they could find us,” Brandon says. “This spot also fits our needs for a place to park our trailer as well as space for our smokehouse and barbeque for our brisket, and we’ve built a smokehouse and barbeque for our meats.”

Some of those meats will find their way into a new Toasted sandwich called The Vaquero, which features Santa Maria tri-tip, roasted red pepper jelly, house-made bread-and-butter pickles and cheeses from Schoch Diaries, Pt. Reyes or Central Coast Creamery. It’s served up with a side of King City Pink Beans – a nod to Brandon’s Portuguese-Salinas Valley heritage. The amazing, toasted sourdough comes from Santa Cruz’s Beckmann’s Old World Bakery or Melinda’s for the gluten-free variety.

“We research these dishes to offer something both unique and authentic. It’s the way we honor our roots here,” says Brandon. “We’re also doing a Cubano. We smoke the pork ourselves and we found just the right Black Forest Ham, mustard, and our own pickles.”

And what’s the secret of their popular tomato soup? “We use caramelized onions instead of cream,” Brandon says. “They, along with a little butter, lend a bit of sweetness and allow people who don’t do a lot of dairy to enjoy it as well. It’s a recipe that took a bit of experimentation, but the response has been well worth it.”

The new, permanent location will also allow Toasted to expand the menu and add capacity, and to redeploy the food truck for special events, like art festivals and corporate outings.

The journey they’ve been on has left the Domingos philosophical about this moment in the restaurant industry, and their place in it.

“Covid changed the restaurant business. It definitely curtailed some restaurants, forcing them to go to online ordering and spin up take-out services, which a lot of places still haven’t mastered,” Erica says. “But that separation has made people realize just how important connection is, and I’ve seen a big shift back towards the idea of ‘let’s take care of each other. Let’s be friends.’”

Fortunately, that philosophy now has a permanent address.

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