Charrito's Way

El Charrito Express in Monterey is the Peninsula outpost of beloved Salinas spot El Charrito. It’s part of a long-planned expansion for the family-run business.

In Mexico, the state of Michoacán is often referred to as the “soul of Mexico.” Perched alongside the Pacific Ocean and stretching inland, the region is home to beautiful coastlines, fertile agricultural land and rugged, mountainous terrain. The culture is driven by hard-working families with rich histories, honored traditions and tantalizing cuisines. It is here, in the small town of Santa Fe, that the story of Salinas’ El Charrito Mexican Restaurant begins.

A little more than half a century ago, Teresa Moncada and her family owned a grocery store and bakery in Santa Fe. There, the Moncadas spent countless hours in the kitchen, carefully crafting their cooking styles and fine-tuning their recipes.

In 1965 the Moncada family immigrated to the United States with big hopes and dreams. While adjusting to their new life in Monterey County, Teresa and her family never stopped cooking – quietly hoping that one day they could open a business in California similar to the one they had back in Santa Fe.

In 1981 that opportunity presented itself when the Moncadas agreed to the purchase of a brick-and-mortar grocery store located at 122 W. Market Street in Salinas known as El Charrito. “All the siblings pitched in to purchase the business,” says Kenia Moncada-Jay, a granddaughter of Teresa. “My mom and her siblings, they all rallied together to help my grandmother build the business. It’s something we are all very proud of.”

With Teresa at the helm, the Moncadas started cooking and sharing the recipes they brought from Mexico, and word began to spread about El Charrito. Before long, customers were lining up for dishes such as chile verde, carne asada and carnitas, all wrapped in an irresistible, handcrafted tortilla.

“I think it’s beautiful, the way we cook,” Moncada-Jay says. “We use only the freshest ingredients. We make everything fresh and onsite. We prepare our food with love and passion, and our customers appreciate that.”

Over the next several decades, El Charrito cemented itself as a local favorite. Despite minimal advertising, the Moncadas couldn’t make tortillas fast enough. For a while, the location still operated as a grocery store in addition to a restaurant. But it was becoming very apparent: people were coming for the food. As the years passed, the foodservice operation began to take up more and more space.

“We were very proud of what we had built up to that point,” Moncada-Jay says. “But as younger generations of our family started to get involved in the business, that’s when we made some changes.”

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In 2015, the Moncadas removed the grocery aisles to focus solely on their foodservice operation. Led by Kenia’s brother, Alex, El Charrito embraced the digital age and invested in large digitized screens and an app.

“That’s really when things started to take off,” Moncada-Jay says. “My brother deserves a lot of credit for that.”

This new and improved business model created more opportunities for El Charrito to remodel its existing storefront and, eventually, to expand.

That long-awaited expansion came on Sept. 2, when the Moncada family officially opened El Charrito Express in Monterey. “I don’t think we realized how much support we have throughout this community,” Moncada-Jay says. “Monterey is a different market, but our hope was to take our model from Market Street and apply it to that demographic. So far, it seems to be working.”

In addition, the Moncadas are branching out with new concepts. That includes Alejandro’s, a Yucatan-inspired dining experience taking the space of the former Lallapalooza that is set to open on Friday, Sept. 23.

It’s been a whirlwind for the family. “There is certainly a lot going on right now,” Moncada-Jay says. “But what I take pride in is the fact that my 92-year-old grandmother still comes into the store every single day. And our employees that have been with us for 30, even 40 years. To me, that’s what makes this a family business to be proud of.”

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