The San Diego Electric Railway (SDERy), in service from 1891 to 1949, was responsible for the growth of several San Diego neighborhoods including North Park and Normal Heights and delivered many of the 3.7 million visitors to the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, San Diego’s World’s Fair in Balboa Park. When the system was shut down in favor of buses, many of the old streetcars were demolished or sold for scrap. However, a few of the cars were sold and converted to back-country cabins or suburban cottages in an early example of adaptive reuse.
Alfonso “Pelón” Johnston, a Barrio Logan community organizer and musician, purchased one of these streetcars. Car 150 was a Class 2 “Expo” electric trolley car built in 1914 by the McGuire-Cummings Manufacturing Company of Paris, Illinois. The car seated 52 passengers, was mainly constructed of wood, and provided all the latest technology including electric lighting, window shades, and pull cords for signaling stops. Johnston installed the decommissioned car in the front yard of 2154 Logan Avenue, right along the No. 12 – Logan Heights trolley line. He built a stucco enclosure on one end, installed kitchen equipment, and opened a restaurant called El Carrito (“the little car”) in 1948.
El Carrito quickly became a social hub for Barrio Logan. Although it eventually passed out of Johnston family ownership, it continued to operate as a Mexican restaurant, then called El Nuevo Carrito, until closure in 2016. The retiring owners sought a new owner who would appreciate the history of El Carrito and Barrio Logan: enter Milo Lorenzana and Carolina Santana, owners of the Por Vida coffee shop on same block. Lorenzana and Santana restored El Carrito, which reopened serving breakfast and lunch on June 1, 2018. They did extensive woodwork while keeping as much of the historic material as possible, even when impractical, and adopting the cream and sage paint scheme of the 1930s and 1940s trolleys.
El Carrito Cocina Mexicana is located at 2154 Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan, one block from Chicano Park and a couple of doors down from Por Vida Café. In keeping with El Carrito’s history as a community hub, El Carrito, Por Vida, and San Diego Vintage Co. host a monthly flea market an the adjacent lot, offering clothing, craft stalls, and local food trucks. Find more info at https://www.facebook.com/elcarritobarriologan/, https://www.porvidacollective.com/, and https://www.facebook.com/barriologanfleamarket/.