Between Camino Carlos Rey and Richards Avenue on Cerrillos Road is a small strip we at SFR have informally christened Carne Seca Lane. Here, you can buy zip-locked gallon bags of the most unique beef jerky you've likely ever tasted, from three separate locations.
Instead of the chewy, preservative-loaded hunks of bagged leather available in most convenience stores, the jerky along this lane is extremely thin and as dry as potato chips, in the Mexican carne seca tradition. You can get it plain, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper or lemon pepper, or dusted in green and red chile, depending on your palette. And in our view, it's absolutely delicious.
Carne Seca Lane in Santa Fe consists of two food carts maintained by Ortega's Jerky and El Ranchito Jerky, as well as the grocery store El Paisano Food Mart. But the three businesses actually have a common origin, according to Jessie Ortega, whose father, José, started the Ortega establishment.
José has been cutting meat since he was 15 years old. He arrived in New Mexico in the 1980's from Coahuila, Mexico, and began working at the El Paisano store in Española as a butcher about 10 years ago. It was there he began to dehydrate meat and sell it to customers.
The beef jerky they sold at the store became popular enough, Jessie tells SFR, that his family began to sell plastic bags of the stuff outside the Walmart in Española and Home Depot in Santa Fe. That was in 2014.
"At first people didn't want to buy from us, but then they saw how good it was," the younger Ortega tells SFR. "We started getting tired of [security] monitors kicking us out of the parking lot. That's when when we went in on our own businesses; that's when we decided to put the little trailers [along] the road."
Around the same time, one of Jessie's step-nephews who had worked at the El Paisano in Española also launched his own jerky venture. Brian Ramirez was only in 11th grade when he started to sell it door-to-door, and acquired a license to operate a trailer soon after. Today, at 21 years old, he manages the El Ranchito Jerky trailer a few blocks down from the Ortega trailer on Cerrillos, and primarily staffs it with friends and family. Both Ortega's Jerky and El Ranchito Jerky have trailers in several other cities across New Mexico.
"We have a trailer here in Santa Fe, one in Las Vegas, and one in Las Cruces. We go to flea markets and Santa Fe Fiestas, and we ship it all over," says Ramirez. For his part, Jessie Ortega says their business sells jerky out of trailers in Taos, Española, Pojoaque, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Grants and Los Lunas.
The recipe is a fusion of Mexican-style carne asada meat, distinguished by its thin cuts, and New Mexican spices, says Derek Rodriguez, a manager at the El Paisano Española location. The store started selling beef jerky under its own brand after José Ortega left to run his own business.
"People come from all over to buy it," Rodriguez says, including form Colorado, Arizona and California, and they ship it across the country. Sizes range from $10 for gallon bags to $5 for smaller portions.
The growing reputation of his father's unique recipe may be one of Jessie Ortega's proudest accomplishments. One consistent customer in Taos, he tells SFR, is a lieutenant in the US Army who purchases the meat in bulk and ships it to soldiers stationed abroad. Its light weight and high protein content make it an easy-to-transport and nutritious snack.
Is he bitter that his father's former co-workers and employer have profited from the Ortega's original recipe? Not at all, he says.
"They sold well, so they thought, they're going to do the same thing as us," Jessie Ortega says, his tone the equivalent of a shoulder shrug. "My dad taught them, since they were like family to us."
Carne Seca Lane:
Arcade News parking lot,
2821 Cerrillos Road, 753-9582
El Ranchito Jerky
Riverside Funeral Home parking lot,
3232 Cerrillos Road, 819-8855
El Paisano Food Mart
3140 Cerrillos Road, Ste. D,