If you’re serious about Mexican, you’re probably familiar with the Calexico Cart. If you’re not, you’re missing out. Their carne asada could bring you to your knees. But the food isn’t 100% Mexican. Jesse Vendley dubs it, “a hybrid cuisine influenced by Mexican cuisine and American barbecue.” The Calexico Cart, run by Jesse Vendley and his two brothers, is the result of Jesse’s craving for home and Calexico-style Mexican cooking. ThisSouthern California native loves carne asada the way most New Yorkers love pizza, but he couldn’t find a worthy version when he first moved to New York City 15 years ago.
So Vendley perfected his grandmother’s recipe by using premium cuts of meats and boldly flavored marinades and launched the Calexico Cart with his brothers, Dave and Brian, in 2006. His efforts paid off. In the past four years, the Calexico Cart – named after the California border town where the Vendleys’ grandparents grew up – has racked up media accolades, a 2008 Vendy Award and even spawned a Brooklyn restaurant called Calexico Carne Asada. They’re about to open a second restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but you can sample their chipotle pork, carne asada, and black bean burrito right from the cart, which is usually in Soho on the corner of Wooster and Prince Street.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be an archaeologist. Indiana Jones style.
What was your first job and what did you learn?
My first job was a bartender. After that, I waited tables, then worked in the kitchen. I learned how to use my hands fast.
You and your brothers grew up in Southern California. What were your favorite places to get tacos? We went to taquerias a lot more than taco trucks, but my favorite place to get tacos was actually my grandma’s house. She taught me how to cook carne asada, though over the years I’ve added to her recipe to develop my own version.
What inspired your move from California to New York? I came here 15 years ago to work in advertising, which I actually still do. I work on the Calexico business part-time. My brothers moved from California to New York in 2006 to help me start Calexico. They work on it full time. When I got to New York, I realized there was no great, inexpensive Mexican food. It was either high-end or nothing at all. So I started cooking the type of Mexican food I grew up with for friends at backyard barbecues. I also started messing around with making different types of marinades and using different cuts of meat, and people were really into it. I realized that what I was making was as good as what I grew up eating. My brothers agreed, so we decided to start this business to bring Calexico-style Mexican food to New York.
What is the most difficult part about running a food cart? What is your favorite part? The most difficult part about running a food cart is also the coolest part. You’re out on the street, so your vulnerable to people complaining about you and calling 311 if they don’t like the smell of your food or something. Most people that come to the cart are great, but all street vendors have to deal with a few cranks who make it bad for business. But dealing with people is also one of the best parts about running a food cart. It’s a communal atmosphere, so people come up and talk to you. It’s just like a cook-out, which is how we ate carne asada growing up.
How does your California-inspired Mexican fare differ from traditional Mexican cuisine? There’s a lot more similarities than differences. Our food is primarily Mexican, but Calexico’s offerings are based on the food from the Southern California town of Calexico, which is near the Mexican border. My grandparents and mother grew up there. We serve a hybrid cuisine influenced by Mexican food and American barbecue. One example of this is our pulled pork taco with pickled onions. It’s a classic barbecued pork, but the sauce is a Mexican-style chipotle chili sauce.
What’s the key to great carne asada? There’s a couple of things to consider, but the cut of meat is pretty important to us. We use better, premium cuts of meat – skirt steak or flank steak – than a lot of places. And we also care a lot about our marinade. Often, carne asada is a pretty generic dish, and pretty bland. It’s meat charred on hot coals that’s sometimes seasoned only with salt. But we make sure to use very flavorful marinades. Also, the best carne asada is cooked outside on a hot grill, which we can accomplish in our cart. In Calexico, people our as obsessive about carne asada as southerners are about barbecue ribs, so we approach the dish with that same kind of pride.
Is there any item on your restaurant’s menu that you wish you could bring to the cart, but time and space just won’t allow it? Yeah, definitely. At the restaurant, we do cheese grits with chipotle shrimp. It’s my favorite thing on the menu, but in the cart, there’s no room for all the bubbling pots that we need to make that dish. We also do tortas at the restaurant, but we can’t really find room to make them in the cart.
Do you and your brothers ever argue about running Calexico? Sure, just like you would with any partners. We’ve all invested a lot of time and money into this, so it can get stressful. But generally, we’re just mellow California guys, so we are usually relaxed with one another.
Out of you and your brothers, who is the best cook? That’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say me. But we just got a fourth partner – Peter Oleyer – who is a CIA-trained chef. So he’s the best chef out of all the Calexico partners.
You won the Vendy Awardsa few years ago. Who are you rooting for this year? It’s hard because I’m a big fan of the taco revolution in New York, but Mexican food vendors have won two years in a row. So I’ll be rooting for a new type of cuisine. I’d like the Schnitzel and Things truck to win. What they do – serving fried meat on the street – is really interesting and unusual around here.
Any plans for a new Calexico outpost? We’re just getting ready to open a new restaurant in Greenpoint on the corner of Manhattan and Bedford avenues. We’re adding a bunch of stuff to the menu, like fish tacos, and we bought a frozen margarita machine. Those usually make gross margaritas, but we’ll make ours great by using fresh lime juice and premium tequila.
We heard that you also collaborate on catering events with the Treats Truck. Can you tell us more about that? The Treats Truck won the dessert category at the Vendy Awards the same year that we won. And we know the owner, Kim Ima. She’s great, so we often work private events together. She’ll take care of the sweets and we’ll provide the savory food.
Calexico Cart – The corner of Wooster St. and Prince
Calexico Carne Asada
Address: 122 Union St. (Brooklyn) Phone: (718) 488-8226