September 28, 2023

Who Remembers Chi-Chi’s on Route 18?

When I was a kid, my parents would take us out for dinner on my birthday. It was the one day a year when I really got to make an active choice in what restaurant we dined at.

So every year, on my birthday, they would ask me where I wanted to eat… and I would always say “Chi-Chi’s!”

At which point the conversation would go like this:

Aw, really!? Don’t you want Ialian food?”

“No! I want Chi-Chi’s.”

“How about Chinese?”

“No! Today is my birthday and I want to eat at Chi-Chi’s!”

If any of you grew up in the ’80s then you might remember, at least in central New Jersey, that we didn’t have the exotic options for cuisine like we do today.

To me, a Mexican restaurant was a place of wonder and delight. With all of their earthy, festive decor… sombreros and strings of cheerful chili pepper lights and rustic tile… it was really a novelty, like no place I had ever been, and it seemed so grand and welcoming.

Back in the 80s we also didn’t have ethnic snack foods like nachos and salsa. Can you imagine? So when they seated you at your table and handed you a menu at Chi-Chi’s, you got to immediately feast on authentic nachos which I would imagine were made on the premises because they were especially crisp and crunchy.

The salsa was thin compared to what we get in jars on the grocery store shelves today. You can barely get a couple teaspoonfuls’ worth onto your chip without it dribbling off… but the flavor was exquisite. At age ten, I couldn’t believe they were giving this stuff away for free, it seemed so… gourmet.

Okay so let’s talk about the Chi-Chi’s menu. Just unlike anything that you ever ate back in those days. The big decision, what would you have? A magnificent grande burro, smothered in three kinds of melted cheese? Chimichangas? A giant burrito stuffed to the gills with delectable Spanish rice, black beans popping and gobs of gooey, savory cheese?

I think it took me at least five birthdays before I figured out that all of the food on their menu was a variation of the same things. Beans. Meat. Cheese. Rice. Tomatoes. Toppings. If you wanted yours stuffed in a fried pocket you could get a burro, and if a manicotti-like baked dish with a Spanish flair was your flavor, you could order enchiladas.

So I don’t know what my parents’ deal was, but to this day they have very little appreciation for Mexican food. In fact, the last time we attempted to get my dad to dine on Mexican he flat out refused, and instead went next door to order Chinese food which he then proceeded to bring to our table outside the Mexican restaurant and luckily which no one said boo about.

Was that my birthday? Yes, it very well might have been. The tradition lives on.

What does Chi-Chi’s mean, anyway? I just had the misfortune of looking it up. Looks like the joke is on us. I’m not going to tell you what it means, you’ll just have to Google. We were so innocent back in the ’80s, weren’t we.

A final word about Chi-Chi’s. if you weren’t impressed enough with your fancy Mexican fair, they had something called fried ice cream on the menu, in which they somehow managed to get warm toasted almond crunchy stuff on top of vanilla ice cream… and being a huge fan of toasted almond, I thought this was heaven in a dish.

Eventually my beloved Chi-Chi’s was faced with competition from the chain restaurant Chili’s which I think was located just a hop down the road on route 18. Both of these restaurants were located nearby to Magnifico’s ice cream which I am not sure exists anymore even though I still travel that road all the time.

You can imagine my dismay when I came home from college one year or at least I think that’s what I was doing, to find that Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant was no more.

These days though, you’ll find a Mexican restaurant in just about every town so there’s no shortage of great food. But yet I long to relive my childhood experience of Chi-Chi’s.

And if anyone knows where I can get some fried ice cream, please let me know!

Curious about whatever happened to Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant? This article provides all of the info.