The location might be different, but the scene outside El Chile Toreado food stand is the same.
It’s just before noon on a blazing July weekday, and a hungry crowd has come calling. It’s a striking assortment of ages and ethnicities and even footwear — a young couple in matching Birkenstocks, a group of men in dust-caked boots, a pair of workout sneakers here and a set of glossy black business shoes there.
Orders are taken in a seamless transition between Spanish and English, and everyone hovers in the sweltering heat at a polite distance from the crisp white trailer with its bright red signage and signature painted chiles, waiting for their number to be called.
Someone picks up a foil-wrapped burrito so large you’d be tempted to cradle it in your arm. Another group balances plates of tacos with icy bottles of Coke and Fanta as they add toppings from the metal containers suspended from the front of the stand.
Some of the customers these days, says Berenice Medina, whose family owns El Chile Toreado, are newcomers since the stand moved in January to Early Street from its longtime spot on Cordova Road. Others have been regulars for years. What both groups have in common: Nobody leaves hungry.
“In our family, when you serve someone and they’re not extremely full, you didn’t do your job correctly,” Medina said. “So my dad has always felt that if you mix great food, good customer service and speed, I think people can really relate to that, and we have been giving that rain or shine. People know that we’re here if it’s snowing, if it’s raining, if it’s 800 degrees outside.”
If all goes according to plan, that rain-or-shine commitment will get a little easier by the end of the year when El Chile Toreado makes another, shorter move: to the low-slung adobe building just a few steps behind the food stand’s current location.
The former office space, empty for a decade or so, is owned by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, whose building is just down the street. The FOE is renovating El Chile Toreado’s future brick-and-mortar home, and Medina said they hope to open inside in November or December.
Customers might see a few new menu items, such as nachos, chimichangas and housemade horchata and hibiscus drinks. But never fear: Those beloved breakfast and lunch burritos (both $7.25), tacos (mix and match four for $8.25), quesadillas ($7.25) and humongous hot dogs ($6.25 to $8.25) aren’t going anywhere.
“We’re going to stay very true to our food stand,” Medina said. “I don’t want people to get scared and think things are going to change. It’s going to be better and it’s going to be faster.”
The also plan to get a beer and wine license, so you’ll be able to have a beer with that burrito.
“That’s going to be huge, for our customers to enjoy our food with a drink — like an adult playground,” Medina said with a laugh.
With more than 2,000 square feet, the new space will offer restrooms, ample indoor seating and expanded cooking space for the staff, which now has about 4 by 16 feet of moving space inside the food stand. They plan to create a welcoming space, with board games and live music.
El Chile Toreado’s unmistakable logo — a mustache made of two jalapeños — will feature prominently in the new décor. Medina, 34, who has the symbol tattooed on her right index finger (as does brother Lester), developed the logo as an homage both to her father’s signature wintertime facial hair and to her family. One pepper represents her mother, the other, her father, and their entertwined stems represent the family bond.
The pepper imagery is a nod to the signature jalapeños, which they put on the griddle to “spank” and release the capsaicin — the part of the pepper that makes it spicy — to turn them even hotter.
Hence the name, El Chile Toreado: “We’re bullfighting the peppers, making them madder.”
The family, natives of Chihuahua, Mexico, settled in Santa Fe after Medina decided to attend Santa Fe Community College. Her father, Luis, started the Mr. Polish food cart on Siler Road 16 years ago, and he and wife Celia opened El Chile Toreado on Cordova the following year.
Medina left home to train at Le Cordon Bleu in Hollywood, Calif., learning the mother sauces and how to plate elegant, tiny portions, but she soon realized that home — and its food — are where the heart is.
“When you’re cooking humble food and food that you’re raised with, there’s a different feeling to it, there’s a different energy,” she said. “When you’re doing it, your heart gets put into it, and it’s art. It’s a whole experience.”
That experience, she said, is part of the appeal for customers, many of whom have started seeking out the food stand as its digital reputation grows through Yelp reviews and media articles in addition to traditional word of mouth.
“It’s just good food,” she said. “People don’t come here to be eating with a fork and knife. They come to have a burrito in their hands and grease dripping down their arms. That’s what people are looking for, and that’s what my dad has always offered.”
Lynden Galloway, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, has been coming for more than a decade. He and his business partner shared an order of carnitas tacos, extra crispy.
“It’s the food, the family,” Galloway said. “The family is special. The food is consistent; it’s always good. The only bad thing about it is when it’s closed.”
As the shell of a new Chipotle chain restaurant rises within eyesight of El Chile Toreado’s location, the emphasis here is on more than just Mexican food done well — it’s on forging a connection that turns new visitors into regulars and keeps regulars coming back, Medina said.
“I think food is one of the biggest connections that humans — not just New Mexicans or my family or my customers — have,” she said. “I think that my family and I offer food that people can relate to.
“We try to really honor the people who come and spend their money here — it’s not just another person to us. Everyone likes to feel special. And if you’ve come here for 10 years and we know what you order, you’re gonna have your order before you even get to the window. It’s just tacos, but when you’re here … it’s something special.”
IF YOU GO
What: El Chile Toreado
When: 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: 807 Early St.
Takeout: Call 505-500-0033 for to-go orders