BY LINDSAY MYERS — “You see this line right here?” Paulino Gonzalez gestures at the long line of people patiently waiting in the drizzle at the Riverdale Park Farmers Market. “It’s nothing. At Johns Hopkins, this line is four blocks away.” Paulino Gonzalez is the owner and proprietor of the popular El Taco Loco and Crepes, a Mexican food and crepe stand that serves made-to-order burritos, fajita bowls, quesadillas, and crepes at 15 farmers markets a week in the DMV. Gonzalez says customers can’t stay away because his ingredients are better. “We do it very natural. People always say, ‘this is authentic Mexican rice.’ [That’s because] we use real tomatoes. A lot of people use taco seasoning. No. Here, everything is fresh,” he said.
Gonzalez’ day starts at 4 a.m. in total darkness. He lies in bed a minute, listening to the rumble of delivery trucks on the still quiet streets of Baltimore. Gonzalez has a lot to do before market. Tomatoes, onions, and garlic to dice. Almost 80 lbs of chicken to cube and separate into quesadilla-sized portions. Hundreds of condiment cups to fill with sour cream and salsa verde. In a couple of hours, Gonzalez and his team will pack the white Sprinter vans with the day’s offerings and send them off for another day at the markets. They’ll return to Baltimore once the sun has set. Most days, Gonzalez gets to bed around 11 p.m. “Living all this is a very stressful life,” he said. “But it is my own business and I like it and I have big plans.”
Gonzalez went into business for himself eight years ago after running a trendy little dockside eatery in Baltimore called The Bay Cafe. Gonzalez said that’s where he learned to cook. “There was a little old lady who teach me a lot. She was like 75,” he said. After twelve years of preparing up to 700 lbs of shrimp salad a night, Gonzalez left the eatery for good, bringing the fruits of his discipleship to his own grill.
And the difference in Gonzalez’ food is apparent. The meat is perfectly seasoned, the vegetables fresh. Each bite of his homemade chorizo burrito feels like a sharp crack on the tongue. Spicy, tender meat and crackling bubbles of hot fat subdued by cool tomatoes, onion and garlic. Gonzalez says most of the flavor comes from having the patience and organization to do things right. “We marinate the meat [the] night before the market, because if you want meat to taste right, it has to do one night in the fridge,” he said.
Andy, Gonzalez’ 10-year-old son, stands by his father’s side throughout the market, making lemonade, making change, and making sure customers are happy. Gonzalez is teaching Andy and his older brother how to cook and run the business. Andy said he has been “in training” the last four years. He started attending the markets with his father when he was five, and then started handling very basic tasks, like cleaning up, at six. “I like working with my dad because I learn fast with him,” Andy said.
“When these guys get old, him and his brother,” says Gonzalez gesturing to Andy, “they will run this. I’m training them. How to cook, how to be with the customers — then I will go back to my country.”
Gonzalez hails from Pueblo, Mexico, where most of his family still lives. When asked if he misses his homeland, he replied, “Always.”
But for now, Gonzalez is happy. He runs one of the most successful food stands in the DMV and has big plans for expanding his menu to add homemade tortillas and more sauces. “This is just the beginning,” he said. “When you have the right food and the right people working, the customer is happy and that I like.”
Grab one of Gonzalez’ burritos at the Riverdale Park Farmers Market on Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. or one of his crepes at the Greenbelt Farmers Market on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.