They took the first three letters of their signature dish, doubled it, added a hyphen, an apostrophe, the letter “s,” and presto, white-bread middle America had something incredibly exotic to explore.
Where I grew up, in bleak and isolated Northeast Ohio, the good citizens had to ease their way into the unique experience of consuming authentic South-of-the-Border vittles. There was distrust: “Was Mexican food taking away ‘American jobs’?” There was fear: “This building looks like the Alamo. It could be a trap.” There was a lifetime of rigid culinary habits that were nearly impossible to break: “I’d really, really like a baked potato on the side with this. And some ketchup.”
But Chi-Chi’s eventually won us over, no doubt aided by the inhibition-lowering giant Margaritas served in glasses with bowls as big as upside-down umbrellas. And huge piles of tortilla chips that were, gasp, free! At the peak of Chi-Chi’s popularity, waiting in the Cantina for a table to open up could take as many as four hours, and that meant a lot of playing the golf tee triangle game for sure. But it was worth it. It was so new and different. No sheltered Midwesterner can ever forget the first time they heard the sizzle of a tray of fajitas flying past their ear or the first time they were confronted with a healthy heaping of guacamole: “Mommy, this looks like the doggie’s throw-up!”
Celebrating a birthday at Chi-Chi’s was extra special as all servers were forced to immediately drop whatever they were doing to go circle the anointed one’s table and perform a special birthday ditty. To enhance the effect that guests were actually dining down in old Juárez and not some half-empty rust belt strip mall, of course the song was chanted in ENGLISH, with a token Spanish interjection tacked on at the end. Even better, a Polaroid picture of the birthday boy or girl wearing a lice-infested sombrero was provided “on the house.”
The chain managed to thrive for 20 or 30 years but the end came suddenly and swift. The entire company was laid low in 2003 after some tainted green onions slipped their way into the kitchen and nearly 40,000 people in western Pennsylvania died. It was so bad a Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football game was cancelled because of it. In less than a year every single restaurant had closed.
I, for one, miss the Fried Ice Cream. Dat shit was da bomb! It even looked like a bomb!