Food Truck Ride-Along: BBQing in the Streets

Carmona's Caesar salad is humongous and reasonably priced at $6. Credit: Dannah Sanchez

By Dannah Sanchez | Watsonville Patch

Johnny Carmona fired up a food truck to bring his BBQ/deli offerings to Watsonville-area students. Credit: Dannah Sanchez

I spotted the famed BBQ haunt parked at St Francis Catholic High School’s parking lot. It’s hard to miss: a truck emblazoned with a pig in a chef’s toque. Carnivores rejoice!

A local favorite, Carmona’s BBQ Deli takes their classic American fare to the streets of Watsonville at an affordable price.

Johnny Carmona, owner and chef at Carmona’s BBQ Deli and Carmona’s Catering, conceived Carmona’s food truck to bring restaurant favorites to outside people’s doorsteps.

“There is so many people for lunch who are unable to make it to our place,” says Carmona. “I figured, why don’t we come to them? And if we could create kind of a similar but more affordable lunch prices, because our restaurant has higher prices, then it would make it simpler for people. That way they could just step out of their office, grab some food and go back in.“

The mobile deli offers a variety of choices ranging from breakfast burritos, burgers, tacos, and even a chicken teriyaki bowl. Carmona and crew also make their soup from scratch inside the truck.

Students love the freshness—and reasonable prices—Carmona's offers. Credit: Dannah Sanchez

The truck is a fully operating kitchen on wheels. The right side of the truck features a salad bar where food that needs refrigeration is kept, a counter with a storage space underneath, a small sink, and a mini-fridge where meats are stored. The left side where all the action happens contains a small counter space for the cashier, a soup section, a steamer where the hotdog and hamburger buns are kept warm, a large countertop grill, and a medium-sized fryer.

A perfectionist, Carmona maintains the quality of the food by keeping the flavors consistent to the restaurant’s standard. He does this by overseeing the preparation of the food and the food truck’s operation three times a week.

Carmona's Caesar salad is humongous and reasonably priced at $6. Credit: Dannah Sanchez

Carmona’s puts a healthy twist on food truck fare: the croutons, dressings, and the soup are all made from scratch. Crowd favorites are the cheeseburgers, clam chowder, and the house chili, which took six months of experimentation before Carmona was satisfied with the flavors. The Caesar salad is humongous and reasonably priced at $6.

The food is prepared ahead of time at the restaurant but everything is cooked in the truck.  Carmona maintains the quality and freshness of the food the same way he does in his restaurant; he constantly oversees preparations, labels containers according to when the ingredients are made, and insists that the cooking staff on the truck tastes the food after it’s made in order to maintain restaurant quality.

St. Francis is their busiest stop. The high school doesn’t have a cafeteria and the children either pack lunch or buy from the other food truck in the school’s parking lot. Carmona, realizing that the students don’t have much variety to choose from, made a deal with the high schools’ officials in order to be able to park and sell food in the school’s parking lot: he must offer choices that are fresh and healthy.

I observed the chaos during lunch period at St. Francis. It is frantic. The students run towards the food truck as soon as the bell rings, and within minutes a large crowd of over three-dozen kids has surrounded the truck.

The truck and its three-person crew are amazingly efficient. Credit: Dannah Sanchez

I wondered about how cleanliness and the quality of the food were maintained during such pandemonium, but Carmona and his food truck staff have it down to a science.

Carmona explains that he assigns each staff member duties so that cleanliness is preserved and the food cooked thoroughly, even during their busiest stop; one person handles the incoming orders and cash, another handles only food and the third helps in preparing the food and calling out orders. These designated positions keep the staff in certain areas of the truck and prevents them from colliding into each other.

The truck literally is a well-oiled machine and, weekdays, it feeds a lot of teenagers. Credit: Dannah Sanchez

Carmona’s food truck literally is a well-oiled machine, and it shows. The truck staff move together fluidly: Selena at the rear end of the truck, taking orders and handling cash, while JJ Tellez and Nick Rubitz handle the preparation of the food.

“We’re fluent with each other,” said Rubitz, boasting of his kitchen maneuvering skills with the staff.

Selena clears the line of hungry students by quickly taking down orders for Rubitz and Tellez to fill. In 10 minutes, the line of over three dozen students has shifted to a crowd near the front end of the truck waiting for food. Inside, Rubitz and Tellez prepare and cook the food, while Rubitz hand the orders to the waiting customers. And within 20 minutes, they’ve cleared the crowd of hungry students.

Carmona knows his crowd. He admits that the prices at his restaurant can be expensive but he hopes to bring in more customers through his food truck business. The prices in his food truck menu are affordable, with the most expensive item being an $8 sandwich. Also, some of the food truck menu items were designed with the student crowd in mind.

Janessa, a freshman at St. Francis and Johnny Carmona’s daughter, said her friends loves her dad’s food and that the students stampede towards the parking lot when the bell rings, signaling the beginning of lunch.

“I like Carmona’s because it’s cheap and easy to get,” said Haley Robinett, a sophomore at St Francis.

The cheeseburger combo is the biggest hit among the students: a freshly grilled burger topped with cheese with a generous portion of French fries. Not bad for a $5 lunch.

“I like Carmona’s because it’s something to look forward to each day, and I like the food,” said Alexis Navarro. “It’s easy and it’s fresh. I usually eat here more than I pack lunch.”

The truck is certainly popular with the students. The truck even takes phoned in orders from the students at St. Francis.

“It gets really busy during lunch,” says Carmona. “The smart kids call in ahead of time so that when they get here, they just pick up their food and pay.”

Their other stop, Watsonville High School, also draws a crowd, though less than St. Francis, so Selena typically returns to the restaurant while Rubitz and Tellez continue on.

Before the Watsonville High students rush out to the parking lot, Rubitz and Tellez begin putting burgers in the countertop grill, the fries are put in the fryer, and seasoned. When the lunch crowd arrived at the truck, the team is set. Rubitz fills the orders while Tellez cooks and calls out already filled orders. They are efficient. No single movement is wasted and they fill the large crowds’ orders within minutes.

The students at Watsonville High loves the variety offered by the food truck: Ricardo Ramirez said he likes Carmona’s because he can get a cheap cheeseburger, without sacrificing quality.

Carmona’s food truck is becoming one of the most popular in the area. Their fresh, clean and budget-friendly approach sets them apart from competition.

My recommendation? The condiment bar is not to be missed. They have the usual ketchup and mustard available, even a Sriracha sauce, but what really sets this food truck apart is their house sauce. The guava chipotle BBQ sauce is an exotic concoction of BBQ sweetness with a kick. But my favorite is the Shabu sauce; a glorious, creamy mixture of the guava chipotle BBQ sauce and mayonnaise. Die-hard fans at Carmona pour it in their fries.

A final note: Dear Carmona’s, please bottle your Guava-Chipotle BBQ sauce and Shabu sauce.