The kings of carne asada


By Nicole Davis

Downtown Express Photo by Jefferson Siegel

Brian Vendley, manning the food cart he runs with his brothers and Peter Oleyer, in the background.

It’s Restaurant Week in New York, an egalitarian dining tradition in which normally expensive restaurants offer prix fixe meals for cheap. Another way restauranteurs can cut down on costs: don’t open a restaurant at all. That’s what Jesse Vendley decided to do once he realized he could serve his Californian-Mexican cuisine “without spending every penny of mine and all of my friends’ and family’s.” Together with his younger brothers Brian and David, they opened up the Calexico Carne Asada food cart last June, and began serving “fresh, artisinal Mexican street food” inspired by meals eaten at their mother’s childhood home of Calexico, California, where carne asada is king. They quickly snatched up honors at last year’s Vendy Awards, finishing in the top three, but despite their easy success, running a food cart remains hard work. The brothers make their food in a Brooklyn restaurant by night, fight traffic from the food cart depot in Queens to the corner of Prince and Wooster every morning, and serve roughly 100 people a day to 300 a week, depending on the season. After ordering a killer carne asada burrito on Monday, I interviewed two of the three Vendleys to find out how an ad copywriter (Jesse), a graphic designer (Brian) and a musician (David) wound up slinging gourmet tacos on the street.

What was so special about Calexico, California that inspired you to recreate its food here?

Jesse: Our family is from there, and that’s where we gather at least once a year when we have reunions. And whenever we go we always anticipate the carne asada cookouts. It’s a pretty common northern Mexican steak dish — carne asada just means charred meat — but the kind we’re taking about is marinated overnight so it’s highly flavorful. And in Calexico it’s taken to another level. People get really obsessive about rubs and marinades and secret family recipes. It’s sort of treated the way they treat BBQ in the south.

Did you steal your family’s recipe?

J: I developed my own. I couldn’t really get the flavor I wanted from store-bought ingredients and a friend of mine said to go to a professional spice mixing company. So I called around and people wanted big money to develop one — I think they were used to working with Emril Lagasse. Then I came across First Spice Mixing Company in Long Island City, and they were willing to make a rub for free as long as they didn’t share the recipe with me. So we went back and forth for months, and we finally it got to a place where I actually liked it better than the original stuff I was eating in Calexico. So now we have this spice rub that was made per my directions, but I don’t know what’s in it.

When did you bring in your brothers?

J: Brian came to New York two years ago after he graduated from college. Pretty soon after that I hatched this idea.

Brian: It was no secret amongst our family that Jesse had been trying to get a restaurant up and running. It got to the point that dinner at Jesse’s house meant trying six or seven carne asadas, because he was trying to perfect it. But then he got the idea for a cart, and he bought me a ticket to the Vendy Awards, and just trying the food — everything from dosas to German food to different takes on Halal food — I was like, ‘Wow this is really good. I would sit down at a restaurant and spend way too much for this.’ It set me up for thinking [operating a food cart] is way easier than it really is. At first I thought, I’ll play some music and make a bunch of tacos and listen to the Yankees game. Quickly it turned into me calling my younger brother David to come out and help me because it was impossible without him.

How hard is it to run a food cart?

J: The permits are tricky—they’re run kind of the way the taxi medallions are run. The city put a cap on the amount of permits allowed in the ’80s, and anyone who had a permit then didn’t give theirs up. The waiting list is now about 20 years long. It’s like a lottery to enter a lottery, and if you’re lucky enough to get one, then the city charges you $55 a year. But the way that every single person with a cart on the street got their permit is by finding someone who owns a permit and continually subleasing it from them. You still have to take the cart to get it inspected—it’s not like it’s this shady illegal thing. But it took us a while to find our spot. Restaurants who didn’t want the competition would call the police and they would tell us to move. We also got threatened by other [street vendors]. We had people come up to us and say ‘If you don’t get out of here, we’re going to kill you.’ It went from being as overt as that, to people driving by really slow and looking out the window and slicing their hand across their throat. You’re sitting there, you’re trying to make tacos, and it’s like whoa! It’s a little scary.

But when we found our spot it was the flip side of that. We get a lot of love from the people in Soho.

B: I like the fact that most of our customers are repeats, and I know most of them by name. It makes my day when someone tells me, ‘That was the best taco I ever had.’

And you do get to listen to music…

B: Between the three or four of us we all have our own iPods. One day it’s old country like Johnny Cash, reggae the next day, or the music my brother makes. He performed a lot more when he was in California and working less than 80 hours a week.

Calexico (www.myspace.com/calexicocart) is open on the corner of Wooster and Prince Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.