Until 2008, the notion of gourmet culinary offerings being proffered by a mobile conveyance was unheard of. Prior to then, food trucks were (often rightfully so) known as “roach coaches or even worse “barf buggies.” Roach coaches were an eyesore, a medium of last resort usually parked at construction sites, manufacturing plants, public parks or basic military training bases where captive trainees had no alternative. Roach coaches were a pure convenience with no pretense to gourmet (or even good) cuisine. Most of them hawked simple fare such as hot dogs and tacos as well as potato chips, cigarettes, candy and chewing gum.
During the era of “convenience stores on wheels,” food trucks weren’t worried about building a brand. Nor were they concerned with repeat business or customer loyalty. There was no such thing as social media at the time and there were no Yelp reviews. These unsightly vehicles (many with actual roaches in tow) were in business to serve a location for a short time period. After at construction job ended at one site, for example, they would simply move onto the next profitable location and the process would continue. These “convenience stores on wheels” served a purpose, but during the first decade of the twenty-first century they began being supplanted by a new generation of mobile food kitchens owned and operated by social media savvy mavens.
Among the first to marry upscale restaurant quality cuisine with a social media presence was Chef Roy Choi who in 2008 launched Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles. Chef Choi is considered “one of the architects of the modern food truck movement.” The success of Kogi signaled the advent of new and improved ways to make custom food trucks better. Those included eye-catching graphics, state of the art sound systems, five-star quality cooking and refrigeration equipment inside. Since 2008, the food truck phenomena has grown increasingly popular. Professor Daphne Demetry posited that the number of food trucks can be explained by the “new authenticity economy,” a shift toward selling products and services that are unique, local and eclectic.
One of the most telling aspects of the food truck movement is the success food truck operators have had in being nominated for and even winning James Beard Awards. And no, the James Beard Foundation didn’t have to create a category specifically for food trucks. Food truck operators are proving every day that they have the chops to be considered for and take home the culinary world’s equivalent of an Academy Award. That’s the case even in New Mexico where in 2023, two of the five semi-finalists for the James Beard “Best Chef-Southwest” Award were food truck chefs: Basit Gauba of Tikka Spice (which earned Edible Magazine’s Local Hero Food Truck Award for 2022); and Berenice and Luis Medina of Santa Fe’s El Chile Toreado.
El Chile Toreado is no Johnny-come-lately, launching as a food cart in 2005, three years before Roi Choi help architect the gourmet food truck revolution. In nearly two decades of serving the City Different, El Chile Toreado has greatly endeared itself to the dining public, earning accolades from the local press and kudos from travelers writing reviews in Yelp and other national platforms. Patriarch Luis and daughter Berenice (who attended Le Cordon Bleu in Hollywood) Medina are the James Beard Award nominees, but the entire family is involved in day-to-day operations. In 2019, El Chile Toreado relocated from its longtime location on Cordova Road to Early Street just south of Cerillos. In 2022, a second location was launched, this one on Siler Road.
Our inaugural visit was on a uniquely New Mexico March day. I stood in line to place our order as hard-and-fast graupel pelted me and other intrepid and hungry diners. My warm-ups were covered in something resembling oversized dandruff. Thankfully the staff was quick to fill tacos and roll burritos so our wait was only about ten minutes. While waiting, I spoke with several fellow pilgrims who used such adjectives as “best in Santa Fe” to describe the fare. One Santa Fe couple didn’t even know El Chile Toreado had been nominated for a James Beard award. They weren’t surprised when I told them. For another patient patron, the bigger surprise was that it had taken me so long to visit.
My Kim asked me to get her one of each carne asada taco and al pastor taco. Figuring she might not share much of her bounty, I ordered two of each. That was one of the best moves since the Dallas Cowboys drafted CeeDee Lamb. The menu explains that al pastor (“marinated pork in adobo sauce with pineapple and onions) is a heightened version of adobada, the pineapple make it the perfect combination of sweet, salty and spicy.” We’ve had a lot of al pastor over the years and this one ranked among the very best. The balance of flavors between the achiote-based adobo sauce, grilled onions and pineapple made each bite a joy. Nestled between two perfectly prepared soft, warm corn tortillas, those ingredients just sang. The two tortillas stacked together somehow make for a better bite than if the taco was made with a single, thicker corn tortilla. The carne asada taco, maybe the quintessential Mexican street taco, was nearly as impressive as the al pastor. In part because of the graupel’s fury, I didn’t visit the condiment bar for taco toppings, but asked for extra salsa. Two salsas are provided. A green salsa has enough piquancy to melt any graupel that tries to fall in its proximity. Ditto for the red salsa.
While diversity is normally my modus operandi when ordering at a restaurant, the al pastor burrito came standard with beans and rice. I’d never before had al pastor with beans and rice. As a lifelong connoisseur of New Mexico’s “other” official state vegetable (the humble frijole) I can never turn down a bowl of beans or the equivalent thereof stuffed into a tortilla. Rice, I can take or leave, but in combination with the beans, El Chile Toreado’s rice was just perfect. The burrito was roughly the size of a small log of firewood, making me grateful I let Kim have all four tacos (and as predicted, gave me only a bite of each). The burrito did fall apart, but a well-positioned paper plate made sure contents weren’t messily deposited on my warm-ups. As with the tacos, the burrito was terrific.
El Chile Toreado’s website explains “El Chile Toreado may mean “The Fighting Chiles”, using the Spanish word for “bullfighting” to liken this iconic Santa Fe food truck’s signature ultra-spicy jalapeños to the fiery, red-hot heat of a charging bull, but its story is one of passion, perseverance, hard work, tradition, good food, and most importantly, family.” To some it may seem this little food truck is the overmatched bullfighter going up against snorting bovines in the competition known as James Beard, but don’t discount the passion perseverance and cooking of the Medina family.
El Chile Toreado
807 Early Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 March 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Carne Asada Tacos, El Pastor Tacos, El Pastor Burrito