Chi Chi’s

Chi Chi's still exists in spirits form

Yes, I mean Chi Chi’s as in the restaurant and not chichis in Spanish as in … Well, you know what I’m referring to. That’s right, female breasts. In English, they would be boobs, boobies, etc. So I always wondered why the Puerto Rican golfer liked to be called Chichi Rodriguez–of course, I had a few unsavory ideas of my own. As a Mexican, I have to ask: Why would anyone name a restaurant Chi Chi’s if they don’t specialize in dairy products? So one day, I’m driving down LaGrange Road in Orland Park with my three sons and I notice that I’m rapidly approaching Chi Chi’s restaurant and I instinctively start thinking about chichis (in Spanish) and some of my female grade school classmates who had big chichis. The girls who envied them called the girls with the big chichis, chichonas. Suddenly, I remember that I’m driving in my minivan with my sons and we’re rapidly approaching Chi Chi’s. Since I’ve driven this way many times before, I know the restaurants in the area fairly well. I dread what is soon appearing. As soon as we’re in front of Chi Chi’s, we will be right across from Hooters! I feel so guilty about exposing my sons to this. I tell my sons not to look out the window. I’m embarrassed because I have my sons with me and I’ve been having impure thoughts about chichis. What kind of father am I?  I have brought my sons to this place where we have Chi Chi’s to the left of us and Hooters to the right! Of course, they’re too young to appreciate this cosmic moment.

¡Ay! ¡Pero que chichona eres!


Ancient tortillas in a modern tortilla warmer.

A Mexican meal without tortillas is not really a Mexican meal. You can mix and match different entrees, but you always need tortillas with every meal. Tortillas have been around since Aztec times and are the equivalent of bread in many cultures. The tortilla, tlaxcalli to the Aztecs, is flat, round, made from corn, and may serve as a plate or an eating utensil such as a fork or spoon. When the Spaniards first encountered them, they called it a tortilla because it was circular like their Spanish dish of the same name.

Tortillas have always been part of my life. My father could eat a bowl of soup using only corn tortillas! My abuelita and mother were always heating up tortillas at the stove for every meal. They even made their own. They would use a rolling-pin to flatten the masa out, or in case of an emergency, a Coke bottle. My mother once bought an aluminum contraption that flattened the masa into a tortilla, but everyone agreed that they didn’t taste the same.

When we went to Mexico, I used to like going to the Tortillería to buy tortillas. They had a giant machine that would just make hundreds of hot tortillas for the customers waiting in line. You didn’t need directions to find the Tortillería because you would find it by following your nose. I would always eat at least one or two before I took the rest home.

Tortillas were also good for an afterschool snack. I’d sometimes come home and heat up some tortillas on the stove and eat them with butter. I rolled them up very tightly like a flauta. Sometimes I would eat them with just salt inside. Sometimes I would just heat them up and eat them plain. I really loved tortillas. When we kept the tortillas too long and they got hard, my mother would fry them and use them to make tostadas or chilaquiles. No tortilla was ever wasted in our home.

Occasionally, we ate flour tortillas, tortillas de harina, but they were always store-bought. We just preferred the taste of corn tortillas. Mexican restaurants use giant flour tortillas to make burritos. Other restaurants use them to make chicken wraps, where the “wrap” is actually a flour tortilla. Tortillas also evolved into the tortilla chips in Mexican restaurants, Frito’s corn chips, Tostitos, Doritos, thanks in no small part to capitalism.

I still have a comal to heat up my tortillas. Occasionally, I’ll eat them with cheddar cheese inside. Or I’ll eat them plain when I feel like reminiscing. But I definitely eat them when I make huevos con chorizo. I always keep a dozen corn tortillas in the freezer so I’ll have them whenever I crave them. They keep very well in the freezer and thaw out quickly in the microwave before I heat them up on my comal.

I can’t imagine life without tortillas!

Don’t eat here

Enchiladas suizas

I will never eat at a certain Mexican restaurant again. I refuse to even mention its name or location. I met my girlfriend there for lunch one beautiful Sunday afternoon. Well, we ate and we had a couple of Margaritas. Before I knew it, the manager asked us to leave so someone else could sit there. I was so insulted by their manager who asked us to leave. The real killer was that he was Mexican. Sometimes your own kind will treat you the worst. When we said we would order something else, he said it was too late. We insisted that he serve us. We have a right to sit in a public place like a restaurant, especially since we were paying patrons. We didn’t get up and he called the police on us. He wanted us arrested for criminal trespass. The police showed up and my girlfriend said that she felt intimidated by them. I can honestly say the police officers did their job professionally. However, I understood that the manager wanted us arrested. I didn’t want to be arrested so we eventually left.

As I discussed this with my girlfriend later, I became more upset. How could they do this to us? I called the restaurant and asked to speak to the owner. The first time, I was told to call after 4 p.m. The next time, I was told the manager, Larry, was in a “meeting.” When I called back after the “meeting,” I was told that the manager would call me back, but I was allowed to voice my complaint to call taker. Of course, Larry never called me back. So I called Larry back two weeks later. He claimed he never received my message. I explained to him that I received bad service there because the manager called the police on us. Of course, he heard that my girlfriend (at first, he thought she was my wife) was making a scene and that’s why they asked us to leave. I had to correct him. The manager working that day told us we had to leave. Then my girlfriend became upset. I really didn’t blame her. I was upset, too, but I didn’t want to be arrested for something as silly as this. Who wouldn’t be upset when you plan to eat supper at a nice restaurant and then the manager calls the police threatening to arrest you for criminal trespass?

If you were funny

Little Italy, Chicago, Illinois

The Operation Family Secrets trial is underway, The Sopranos season ended with a lot of publicity, and Hillary Clinton successfully parodied that final Sopranos episode. Well, because of all this attention drawn to Italians lately, I recall one particular Italian man I met a long time ago in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy. I have met Italians who are American, Italian immigrants, and Italians who try to project the mob lifestyle, even though I know that some are just wannabes. We have them all in Chicago. This man I met, looked like the stereotypical Italian mobster gathered with some “associates,” but they just could have been his family. He was a middle-aged man dressed in a dark blue suit, bright red tie, and he had a gold pinky finger with an enormous diamond. Balding head with salt and pepper hair. He looked like a real mobster and was obviously the power holder at the table. One of the stories he told began, “This gumba called me the other day …” When he finished it, everyone at the table laughed. I didn’t exactly hear the whole story, so I couldn’t tell you if his story was actually funny or they merely laughed at the boss’s joke.

I was sitting at the next table with my running friends after our track workout. Every Wednesday evening, we went to the track, ran some speed work, and then went out afterwards to eat pasta, and drink a few beers. About ten of us sat there drinking and being loud. We always felt especially proud when someone would ask the management to tell us to be quiet. But not on this night!

At first, we didn’t really notice the people at the neighboring table. We told jokes and funny stories as we usually did. Actually, our two tables got into a game of one-upmanship. I don’t like to brag, but I was usually the loudest and funniest one at the table. Finally, the Don at the next table points to me and says, “Hey, kid! You think you’re funny, don’t you?” “Well, you heard how I made everyone laugh, didn’t you?” mimicking him fearlessly, but it was just false bravado. Well, suddenly our two tables got very quiet. “How funny are you?” “Really funny!” “Come here. I want you to make me laugh!” And he smiled a really big smile, so big I could see that no food stuck was between his teeth.

As I walked over to him, I recalled a story that Bob Hope once told: “I worked in some mob-owned nightclubs. They didn’t pay you. But if you were good, they let you live!”

Well, I seemed to have gotten myself in a very similar predicament. He tells me, “Tell me your best joke. And you better make me laugh.” Of course, I didn’t tell him my best joke, but I did tell him one that always got a laugh and he laughed, along with everyone else at the table. “Tell me another one.” This time he laughed a little more. I can’t even remember what jokes I told him. I told him a few more jokes and only then I hit him with my best joke. You have to build up to it, right?

Well, he really laughed and laughed. And he slapped me on the back. It really stung! So he says, “You’re really funny, kid. You should be a comedian!” “I am,” I said. “Didn’t I just prove it?” He smiled at me and then said, “Okay, go sit down.” When I sat down, both our tables continued telling jokes and laughing and drinking beers. His table left way before ours. I figured he probably had to get up early to go to the office in the morning.

When we asked the waitress for our check, she told us that the gentleman who sat next to us had already paid it. “You are so funny!” I told her. But we actually ate and drank for free that night. How funny!