The Carlitos brand is only a few years old, but its inception has been years in the making. Founder Carlos Castillo got the idea to start a barbecue taqueria after trying barbecue for the first time. Falling in love with the flavors of the meats and the style of cooking, he felt one thing was missing; a tortilla. The result of his idea is now one of The Best New Jersey Food Trucks.
Growing up in Queens, he got the idea to blend elements of his background with barbecue in an innovative way. Castillo then brought on a former coworker and friend, Fernando, as his partner. Working together, the two developed what we know today as Carlitos. The business now consists of a food truck, a brick and mortar, and pop-ups all over the New Jersey-New York area.
Carlitos is known for their fluid blend of barbecue and Mexican cuisine. Castillo takes pride in his smoked meats as well as his hand-pressed tortillas. The brisket smokes for 14 hours before prepping it for patrons. Likewise, making the tortillas is a 24-hour process; they grind up fresh corn and cook it naturally and let it sit before pressing it into individual tortillas. The service is fast casual, but the process can take days to ensure they deliver delicious, tender meat.
Carlitos will be at several Just Jersey events this summer. They also will be attending the 3rd Annual Taco Palooza in Chester on June 20 and the one in Sewell on July 18. The Carlitos restaurant in Garden State Plaza is currently closed. However, the three partners use their commissary kitchen as an operations station for the time being. This popup eatery, located at 119 Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, offers takeout and delivery through Grubhub and DoorDash daily. You can place an order by giving them a call.
The Best New Jersey Food Trucks: Carlitos Interview
Best of NJ: What came first: the restaurant or the truck?
Carlos Castillo: The truck. Date of birth was July 17, 2017 in Jersey City. It was just lunch service at Exchange Place in Jersey City. It was Fernando and myself. We parked on Grand Street right in front of Goldman Sachs. I think we saw about 40 people, and we were so happy! I remember the first customer’s name was Adam [laughs]. He worked at Goldman Sachs. And we were just so surprised and happy that people were paying for our food. You feel like you made it that day. People actually were willing to come up to our window and buy our food.
BONJ: How has the truck evolved over the years since then?
Carlos: Year one was a lot of Monday through Friday, getting to understand our operation. Then it was about connecting with people there and seeing who’s willing to buy into this concept. And then we evolved.
Fernando and I were still working full-time jobs; but once we quit our jobs to go full time, we had to make this work in a different way. We had to generate more income. So we started doing dinner service mostly at luxury condominium buildings where there’s high population.
Fast forward to last year, we now utilize our trailer mostly for large-scale events. We’ll attend large events, festivals, and street markets and fairs with our truck. This year we intend to do more of the same and are still exploring to find new events, new venues.
BONJ: Carlos, you’ve mentioned the first time you had barbecue and wanted a tortilla to go along with it. Talk about that idea and its role in developing Carlitos.
Carlos: It was interesting to me, growing up in Queens; there wasn’t a lot of barbecue in our neighborhood. It just was not a popular thing there, or it just wasn’t prominent there for a while. So as a kid, that wasn’t something I grew up eating. I didn’t have that kind of access.
The first time I had barbecue, a good friend of mine said, “You should definitely go check out this place in Williamsburg.” So I went there, and I just remember those flavors. I’ve always been a meat guy, and I go to the steak houses and things like that. But this was a very special day.
So eventually I tried experimenting and exploring, with different types of barbecue, different tortillas, and different items. I knew this definitely had legs and continued with the research and development; self-taught myself barbecue, learned the tortilla-making process from scratch, and combined my favorite foods.
BONJ: How did the three of you partner for this endeavor?
Carlos: My first partner was Fernando. Once the idea really hit, I called him and said, “I have something. Check this out.” That’s where it started. We worked on getting the trailer. The trailer was important for many reasons, but one of them was because you got the opportunity to start small and not invest everything into one location.
Fast forward to the growth of the trailer; we spoke with Westfield (at Garden State Plaza in Paramus), and they were developing their restaurant district. [The team] decided this was going to work, because we saw people’s reactions to our food. We don’t take it lightly when people say this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten, we really appreciate those compliments. And when you get that a few times – over and over – you want to keep growing and expanding.
So then it was time to build a team. Martín (Moliné) was my childhood friend, and we grew up in Queens together. We grew up about a block apart from each other. And he was an obvious partner for this business. He brings a whole lot of different experiences and skills.
BONJ: What different roles do you guys play in the business?
Carlos: Fernando does a lot of the operations. He’s really good with hands-on needs. His background is mechanical engineering and aviation. So he maintains things. Myself, I focus on the creative side of things but also the people. I’m sort of the gate keeper, if you will, who comes into the team and makes sure we have the right environment to let things stay alive the way they should. And then Martín does all of the admin and all of the growth and strategy.
Martín: I do communications as well. My background is solely finance, accounting. I have zero hospitality background, but a good cog to the team; because at the end of the day what I focus on is everything from keeping the books and making sure that we’re invoicing, paying, etc., to really helping out with strategy of growth, helping out with really funding the business. Carlos and Fernando are day to day. I have another full-time job, but I’m involved, I would say, pretty heavily; because I speak to Carlos and Fernando every day.
BONJ: Tell us about the Carlitos menu. What do you usually offer?
Carlos: It’s a small menu. We focus on quality and a lot of precision. We sell barbecue tacos. I think any barbecue person will tell you that you really get graded on the quality of your brisket. It’s the hardest thing to make in the barbecue world, at least, from what I’ve experienced.
Our menu’s basically inspired by barbecue culture and Mexican culture. It’s about a 70-to-30 ratio. Essentially, our proteins are the barbecue element. We feel very confident about our meats, so we try to just keep it simple and balanced.
Our main items are tacos, and we offer three different ones: brisket, pulled pork, and chicken; then under quesatacos, we have an additional taco. It’s very special. This other taco started off being a vegetarian taco: tortilla, seared cheese, sweet plantains, and that’s our vegetarian taco. That one has a cult following, and it was the one that took the longest to develop; because we focus so much on our meats. Everything from being antibiotic free to cage free, and obviously the smoking aspect of it.
We also have other things, like Mexican street corn, which is very traditional. [Carlitos tries] to source local whenever possible, so we try to keep a nice carbon footprint as well. We also offer basics like guac and chips, we do all in-house pickling; all our salsas are made here from scratch. You will not find a can. We also sell a rice bowl, which is cilantro lime rice, choice of meat, and sweet plantains.
BONJ: What are some fan favorites on the truck?
Carlos: On our truck, we stick to our core menu. We offer tacos, including quesatacos, and Mexican street corn. We keep it tight.
Martín: I just want to add a word about the innovation part and the fan-favorite part; because a quesataco is not something most people have heard about, generally. And Carlitos does it differently than a lot of people are familiar with, anyway. We press our own tortillas. And that’s one of our biggest and most important principles—fresh, hand-pressed tortillas. In order to do that, we can’t really make four different sizes of it. We just make one size, because we really have to keep moving.
We used to offer quesadillas; and we’d just grab two tortillas, cheese on each side, close them up, and hand them like that. But then we decided we needed to change it up. So we changed it to one tortilla exactly like the taco – open face – but grill the cheese on the tortilla first. It’s not that innovative, but no one does it. However, it really has become a fan favorite. People love it.
BONJ: What type of catering do you guys offer?
Carlos: We provide three different experiences. We have a package for smaller parties or for offices. For office settings, we do a minimum of 50 people. You can pick up here for smaller parties, we’ll get you what you need; but if we come to you, we ask that the party size be at least 50 people.
For the second package, we get a lot of phone calls about the trailer. So we offer that as well. That’s also available online. You can see the entire menu with all the truck fees and stuff.
Then we have a new one, which is a package that has been very popular in office settings. We built a “carrito,” which is a taco cart. It’s pretty much self-sufficient, we just need electricity, and we roll this into your party. You can either be indoors or outdoors. And we basically do everything there from scratch, tortillas from scratch. It’s really cool.
Martín: That idea came from Fernando saying, “Guys, if we’re gonna start bringing lunch to corporate cafeterias, let’s not use their cafeteria stations.” We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be very different and have a different experience. So we built this little guy, the carrito. Instead of bringing a trailer and putting it outside, you can put that guy, the carrito, in any setting.
Carlos: It’s a really cool way to celebrate quinceañeras or sweet 16s, bar mitzvahs, all that stuff. The nice thing about that is the tortilla pressing happens right in front of you, so you get to see that whole thing. We sear the cheese in front of you, so you get to experience all that. You get to see it fresh, and you’re getting it right off the grill; and that’s the best time to have a taco. Fresh, hot tortilla, hot meat—you can eat it right away, and that’s the best.
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Photos: © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ
Food Truck & Catering Van Photos: Provided by Carlitos