When Leo and Oliver Kremer were growing up on Alvarado Road, their go-to place for teenage nourishment was Gordo’s, the burrito shop on College Avenue.
Both boys loved the down home nature of the store, with its wooden tables, leather stools, and simple, yet satisfying food. Leo was particularly fond of the chile verde burrito.
While they were in high school at Head-Royce, the Kremer brothers explored the Bay Area for other good burrito places and soon were making regular visits to Picante, Cactus Taqueria, and Cancun in Berkeley, and La Taqueria and La Cumbre in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“I remember the first burrito I ever ate,” said Leo. “My parents weren’t really burrito eaters, but my music friends were really into burritos. I had one, and thought it was good. But then I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It is such a subtle cuisine. As you eat it more you learn to appreciate its simplicity.”
The brothers were so enamored of burritos that they decided to turn them into a business. They set out to conquer a place that was in desperate need of burritos, but didn’t know it: New York City.
It’s not hard to find good tacos in New York, which is home to many Mexican immigrants. But burritos, or at least the ones loaded up with cheese, rice, guacamole, and sour cream in addition to beans and meat, are really a California invention, said Leo. They really didn’t exist in New York.
In 2009, the Kremer brothers and Tyler Lohman, a Berkeley friend, opened Dos Toros on Fourth Avenue, right near Union Square. From the start, Dos Toros, modeled on Gordo’s, was a big hit. The brothers and the restaurant were featured in the New York Times, the Village Voice, NY Eater, Food and Wine magazine, and the Daily News. A blogger on Huffington Post declared Dos Toros burritos the best in New York. Before long the store was serving 600 people a day. It was so popular that the brothers opened two more stores, one in Greenwich Village and one on the Upper East Side. They are now the undisputed burrito kings of New York.
“It’s hugely gratifying,” said Leo, 31. His brother and Lohman are both 25. “The first people to respond were the Californians. A lot of West Coasters live in New York. And they were ones really seeking this out because they were really missing it. Now New Yorkers have really gotten into it. I think we have really grown on New Yorkers.”
Sam Baker, who grew up in Berkeley but who has lived in New York for eight years, used to visit Dos Toros every week when he lived nearby. Now he and his wife only visit two to three times a month, and wish they could get there more often.
“It’s been amazing to see how popular they’ve gotten,” said Baker. “I think they are actually better than Gordo’s. They have done a better job of seasoning the meat. It’s not quite as large as Gordo’s, so it’s an optimal size.”
The menu, like the one at Gordo’s is not large. There are burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. (There is no chile verde filling.) The Kremers make everything fresh, source locally, and are generous with the guacamole. The burrito recipe took some time to perfect, said Leo. At first the brothers tried to make each ingredient sing, and made very flavorful beans, complex guacamole, and spicy meats. Put together, the taste was “chaotic,” he said. So they scaled back and simplified the taste in each ingredient, which made the end-product taste better.
“One schism in the burrito world is whether you steam tortillas or you grill the tortillas,” said Kremer. “Gordo’s steams. We’re steamers. We think steaming really brings the tortilla to life and melts the cheese in a good way. Melting cheese is a big deal as opposed to putting shredded cheese on at the end and having it never really melt.”
Gordo’s played a huge role in Leo’s life. He ate there about four times a week. He likes the idea of Dos Toros playing a similar role in the life of a New York kid.
“Invariably, the place that you grow up with is the one you always think is the best, no matter what. Some New York kid is going to grow up eating Dos Toros and is going to think that we are the best burrito in the world because that’s what they imprinted on. That’s kind of a cool thing.”
Dos Toros just released a new video about their food, featured above. See if you can hear the line: “East Coast Gordo’s in Dos Toros.”