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It is 6:30 pm – the workday of most of the taco, quesadilla and memela vendors in the city is over, but “The Artist’s” shift has just begun. Every day, as the dusk light bathes the streets, 34-year-old Caleb Santiago sets up his food cart right below the centuries-old clock that overlooks the corner of 5 de Mayo and Murguía. By 7:00 pm, he is ready for another night of juicy hamburgers and hot dogs.

Among all the late-night hamburger stalls sprawled across the city, Caleb’s is something else. Initially known as just “Cangreburgers,” this little SpongeBob Squarepants-inspired cart has been feeding Oaxacans for the last 16 years. Its name comes from the famous burgers made by the title character in the animated TV show, called “cangreburgers,” from cangrejo, the Spanish word for crab (known as “Krabby patties” in the English version). But five years ago, Caleb’s popularity grew so much that he had to change his business name to “La Original Cangreburger” to differentiate himself from other carts that had started copying the name, hoping to benefit from his reputation. “Cangreburger” seemed to be the magical word for attracting clients, but it was Caleb’s unique sazón (touch) that turned normal burgers and hot dogs into one of Oaxaca City’s most rewarding late-night treats. “In the cartoon, SpongeBob’s cangreburgers are unique and synonymous of good flavor. That is the idea that fuels my work. I want to have my own style and evoke something popular, accessible and tasty,” explains Caleb.

His innate cooking talent explains why many of his most devoted customers now call him The Artist. “Art soothes and inspires people in need, and Caleb’s hamburgers have been there for me when I’m hungry and tired after a long night of work – I think it makes complete sense,” affirms Esteban, a frequent customer who overheard us discussing Caleb’s nickname. His comment is joking in its tone but the words come from the heart; there is no doubt about The Artist’s talent behind the grill. Just like SpongeBob, he assembles burgers and hot dogs both like a highly focused samurai and a graceful dancer that somehow never stops smiling. Every element is placed meticulously.

“When I first started, I followed the recipe I was given, but I was not completely satisfied with the result,” he explains. “The bread gets soggy if you prepare it before you grill the meat. Also, the condiments must be placed strategically so you get all the flavors in one bite. The order matters.” Back when Caleb started, his plan was to partner with his brother-in-law for just a couple of years and then maybe go back to his hometown, San Felipe Usila, a village in the north of Oaxaca state. But the story took a different direction as the business was doing well, and he took the chance to open a stall on his own, the very one he runs today.

Unlike many cooks that grow up around their family kitchens, Caleb had no previous experience with food; every innovation that goes into his creations is the result of pure intuitive experimentation. The original cangreburgers and hot dogs are served with a series of signature relishes: caramelized onion, pickled jalapeños, crispy bacon, finely chopped pineapple, lettuce, and molten quesillo. In terms of ingredients, he prioritizes quality but also function. For example, Caleb describes his search to find a perfect quesillo that would “melt completely onto the patty, almost wrapping it” he adds.

On an average week (from Thursday to Tuesday) Caleb prepares about 1,000 hamburgers and 500 hot dogs, but his busiest days are Fridays and Saturdays, when he stays open almost until 5 a.m. From 7 p.m. until the morning, old, new, and referenced customers group around his cart enjoying Coca Cola and Boings (a popular Mexican fruit-based drink) as they wait for their hamburgers and hot dogs. Lined up in the front part of his cart we can find a display of unusual salsas that go from mild to very spicy, for clients to enhance their food at will. Not many food carts offer the extensive array of additional condiments that La Original Cangreburger has: a Monterrey Jack-style cheese spread, chipotle mayo, plain chipotle sauce, hot sauce made from pasilla (a very local chile used in moles and other dishes), regular macha sauce (a salsa made of sesame seeds, chile de árbol and oil), grasshopper macha, peanut macha, aguachile (a sort of guacamole and serrano chili puree) and pickled red onion with habanero.

Not surprisingly, has developed a fiercely loyal audience. In addition to a large number of locals and travelers who religiously pay Caleb a visit every time they come back to the city, the stand has also become a popular spot for local restaurant industry workers. It is common to see groups of cooks still in their chef’s coats in awe after tasting Caleb’s hamburgers and salsas. It is also normal to see early customers pull over their cars along this busy Centro street only to place big orders that they will pick up two or three hours later.

“During the pandemic I prepared hamburgers in my yard – a lot of my customers drove all the way from their homes to buy my hamburgers,” Caleb tells us. “That’s when I realized it is all about the attitude you have toward the things you are creating, not about the location. People will follow you any time, anywhere if you are passionate and sincere about what you do.” In the end, it doesn’t matter how many carts we can run into along the way, the ultimate test lies in hitting authentic and memorable flavors. In that respect, La Original Cangreburger is an honors graduate.

María ÍtakaJalil Olmedo

Published on June 15, 2023

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