Chando's Tacos does one thing exceptionally well.
It cooks up the most flavorful meat you could possibly imagine and plops it down onto fresh tortillas.
Order three of those tacos, add a drink, and you're on your way to the meal of your dreams – for all of $6.
That, along with plenty of smiles and enough banter through the walk-up window to make you think you've found a new friend, is pretty much the business model.
Is it working? Is it ever.
Chando's burst onto the scene in June, taking over a spot along a desolate stretch of Arden Way in digs abandoned by a hamburger stand. Across the street: a gas station that went under. The view? There is no view.
Word spread. Chando's reputation grew, as well it should. Savvy customers know commitment when they taste it. The meats are top-shelf, the marinades are made from scratch, and the cooking is the work of an artisan. No shortcuts here.
If Mozart made marinades instead of music, these would be his flavor notes – everything in balance, all of it an inspiration.
Charbroiled chicken bolstered by achiote spices. Birria, made with beef instead of the traditional goat, and cooked to great effect like a stew using Mom's age-old recipe for the sauce. Tilapia with a hint of citrus flavor that is grilled, not fried – bringing out the flavor and tenderness of the fish. The adobada pork? It's cooked ever so slowly on an upright rotisserie, just the way Chando saw it done on the streets of Tijuana.
You don't need a prime location and a fancy building to make great food. You simply need fire. The overflow dining area, for goodness' sake, is a nylon tent in back of the building. The luxury upgrade: a portable gas heater.
These days, less than a year in, Chando's is making what just might be the best tacos, burritos and quesadillas in town – perhaps from here to Tijuana. The tortas – the Mexican take on an all-American sandwich – are sensational, especially the one with tilapia.
What's more, the man behind the name on the sign is a compelling story, a charming guy and a big success waiting to happen.
Chando is Lisandro Madrigal, the seventh of eight children born to a family in Yuba City. His father, Hilario, arrived in California from Mexico at a young age, landed jobs as a migrant worker and eventually formed his own contracting business. Chando worked in the fields, too, plucking cherries and peaches from the trees all day long.
When he was 15, his father announced he wanted to return to Tijuana to live out his life there, and Lisandro tagged along. There, Hilario opened a tortilla factory and his teenage son ran it, learning on the job. He arose at 2 a.m. to prepare the first wave of daily deliveries at 6 a.m. Then they started over for the noon deliveries.
Chando already knew what homemade tortillas tasted like.
"I remember as a kid, I would wake up to my mom's clapping. She was making tortillas," he told me. "I can close my eyes and still hear it."
His father died three years ago, succumbing to diabetes.
"That's what inspired me to follow my dream," Chando said.
This is where the story takes a sharp turn, and a familiar tale gets a modern twist that goes beyond the mastery of tacos. Chando, now all of 30, and his family are computer geeks. He works in corporate sales for Apple. Two of his brothers have worked as engineers at Intel for 20 years.
"We're high-tech Mexicans," he said with a big laugh.
And so we have a modest-looking taco stand on Arden Way that combines age-old cooking techniques, passion passed down through generations and a modern business plan that includes terms like "scalable" and "expansion."
"I've got a passion for my tacos and I really like doing this," he said. "I didn't get into this business as necessity. I got into it because of my passion. I enjoy seeing people being satisfied with my food."
Yes, Chando's taco world is going to get bigger. He already has a truck he's pimping out to go mobile, hot-footing around to comply with Sacramento's ridiculously restrictive food-truck rules by moving from location to location, using Twitter to alert his fan base.
That's coming this spring, along with a midtown location he will soon reveal.
Until then, food aficionados are compelled to make tracks to this divey little joint in a section of town we'll call the middle of nowhere – somewhere in between Arden Fair mall and North Sacramento, overlooking an industrial park and just a short jaunt from the upscale Woodlake neighborhood.
Chando still works for Apple even as his nickname is becoming synonymous with taco greatness. He arrives at the taco stand at the end of his workday. His wife, Karla, is the face of the eatery when he's absent.
Chando makes the marinades from scratch; the one who works the magic with the meat is the parillero – the grill master – Efren Ramirez. Taking orders through the window most times I stop by is the affable shop manager, Carlos Aguilar. The employees handling the food are focused and devoted.
Beyond the commitment to great cooking, Chando's Tacos has an employee rule that makes the food taste even better: "Everyone's gotta be smiling."
What's the best way to eat at Chando's? First thing: Arrive hungry. Order the three-tacos combo, but try a different meat on each. That way, you can get an immediate sense that these folks are serious about being the best. Order a different meat on a torta, too, perhaps splitting it with a loved one.
On your next visit, mix it up with different meats and different combinations, perhaps trying this oddity called the "mulitas," which is a cross between a quesadilla and a taco – and really good.
Chando knows his modest little taco stand is about to take off. He has an ambitious plan for 2011. He is poised to expand the hours at the original shop while getting the food-truck idea rolling and setting up a second location in bustling, food-crazed midtown.
Can he handle a major uptick in business? Is he ready to be the next big thing on the food scene?
Chando tells me his business plan is "scalable," which is geek-speak for "more than ready."
Take the passion he inherited from his parents and the savvy he acquired to compete in the 21st century, and you've got the formula for a major success.
863 Arden Way, Sacramento
Hours (soon to be extended): 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Sunday
Full bar? No
Vegetarian-friendly? Marginal, but aspiring to do more soon
Overall 4 stars (excellent)
While we mostly examine fine-dining restaurants, sometimes we simply want great food. Chando's keeps it simple with a compact menu, but the flavors of the meat are outstanding. This place deserves to be a big hit.
Food 4 stars (excellent)
To make a great taco, burrito or torta, you have to have meat that rocks. The flavors and tenderness of the chicken, pork and beef are outstanding, thanks to homemade marinades and great cooking. If you want to get a tad adventurous, try the lengua (tongue) or buche (pig stomach).
Service 3 stars (good)
Sure, you order at the walk-up window, but it's always a friendly encounter.
Ambience 2 stars (charming)
One very cold night, we sat in a white nylon tent near a portable heater. Another time, we were at a picnic table with a view of a boarded-up gas station. What's not to love?
Value 4 stars (excellent)
You and a date could go into a food coma and still get change from $20.
Noteworthy: Chando's has only just begun. Watch for expanded hours, a food truck (with Twitter updates) and a midtown location coming soon.