On Wednesdays, at 2:00 PM sharp, Rata loads up his lilac ’42 Chevy (“Lime green running lights underneath, man,” Rata grins. “Very sharp.”) with his knife kit, a couple of tongs and long-tined forks, an uncountable number of paper plates, Styrofoam containers, plastic silverware and napkins, and 4 huge Coleman coolers filled with food and ice. Then he rumbles north from his locally famous hideaway, Chi-Chi’s Taqueria, into Kansas City proper where he sets up an ad hoc kitchen in the parking lot of the Latin American Assembly of God.
There he’ll spend the day feeding the area’s homeless for free.
Later on, as the afternoon shadows draw long, Rata will serve “to-go” dinners to a long line of downtown commuters as they inch up from Southwest Blvd. These low-riding wannabes steer with their knees, texting madly or chattering mindlessly into their cells as they impatiently await Rata’s sweaty hand pushing an aromatic Styrofoam container through their Camry or Lexus window.
The commuters must pay at Rata’s outdoor taqueria.
Chi-Chi’s Taqueria has been a south JoCo institution for 20-someodd years, and while you won’t find a review of it in either the Star or the Pitch, its existence is an open secret among KC’s more enterprising denizens and bloggers. In fact it is rumored that Charles Ferruzza once ate there and left with not one, not two, but three doggie bags. Rata’s Chi-Chi’s is the stuff of legend.
Why don’t you know of the place then? Because Rata opened his taqueria (in 1988) and from the beginning made it a practice to avoid publicity.
“I saw what happened with Tasso’s,” Rata says. “Remember when it was on 75th? He had that shotgun building and there were only twelve 4-tops, six running down either wall, just enough room for the waitress to serve. The tables were so tightly placed Tasso literally walked on the tables, pouring ouzo shots into his customers mouths as he went; that was a great joint.”
“Then he (Tasso) moved to lower Wornall, this huge building, man; painted it Mediterranean white and blue, even put out a patio that remains unused to this day, and advertised, advertised, advertised. What happened? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the place went to shit. The ouzo pouring and plate breaking became just a buncha ‘nother seals barking in the circus, Tasso a ringmaster. I didn’t want that.”
Rata did his research. He traveled from KC to Wichita to St. Louis to Chicago to Omaha to Dallas looking for the quintessential dive around which to model his dream. He found the perfect template in Denver.
“There was this place on Colfax, the Satire? Man what a joint! And since its main fare was Mexican, I just needed a few personal tweaks to make Chi-Chi’s roll the way I wanted, you know?”
Pete’s Satire Lounge is a Denver institution. Located in the same spot between The Squire Lounge and the Lion’s Lair on Colfax for nearly 50 years (Denver’s main east-west drag), the Satire has proudly over-served under aged teens, whores, junkies, street people, neighborhood dwellerss and Cherry Creek adventurers since 1967. Unlike Casa Bonita however, the Satire draws few tourists.
Rata returned to KC determined to out-joint the Satire. He had just the location in mind.
“It was this light industrial area around 159th. I don’t want to say too much ’cause we believe, I believe, if you’re meant to find Chi-Chi’s, hey, that’s great, ya know? But we got our regulars, people who eat here every day, twice a day, and the bar fills up at night, we got 20-30 people we have to show the door at 1:00 AM, right? No offense but we don’t want the place so busy with foodies and bloggers and Brooksider’s and the country club set that our regulars don’t feel comfortable hawking luggies. I mean, Chi-Chi’s has supported me and my family for the last 20 years; what more do I want?”
And he really won’t say more than that. I’ve been sworn to secrecy – it was Rata’s price for letting me tell the rest of KC about him and his joint. He is willing, however, to make the tiniest of concessions for the adventurous diner.
“Tell you what: if you actually get to OMB Guns? You’re close, real close.”
This past Wednesday I had my first meal at Chi-Chi’s. Rata had given me detailed directions but it still took me 3 hours to find the place. Twice I nearly gave up, convinced Rata was playing an elaborate prank, but eventually I made that last critical turn.
The gravel parking lot was full of dented working trucks and ’80s sedans, with the odd VW thrown in as a sop to diversity. A couple hundred yards to the west of Chi-Chi’s is I-35.
The first thing you see when entering Chi-Chi’s is a universe of color depending from the ceiling. The second thing you see is a pretty girl in soiled whites, a menu clasped to her chest, softly asking if you want to eat at the bar or the dining room. Once astride my stool at the 30 foot bar I surveyed the large room. I counted 20 booths, rolled and tucked exactly like the seats in Rata’s Chevy, and another 20 tables – some set-up as 4-tops, the rest deuces.
The place was rocking. Seriously, it was just after 11 in the morning and there wasn’t an empty seat in the room. Stevie Ray Vaughn blared from the juke and cigarette smoke blued what little light had managed to infiltrate the building; a dozen or more drunks dreaming unattainable realities murmured throughout the room; a bass line pulsing behind the giggly high-pitched false demurs of bottle redheads sporting biker colors. At a couple of tables blunts were being openly smoked. And everywhere was the detritus of finished, no, scarfed down meals; abandoned aluminum foils balls that once held warm tortillas, grated cheese scattered next to shredded lettuce, leftover refied beans noone ever seems to eat, towers of gunky platters that promised to anneal themselves together should they spend enough time sharing the congealing orange sauce. Wafting over and through all of this, the pale smell of stale piss, lightly scented by methanol urinal cakes.
Fuck. I was in nirvana.
The bartender — another young lass in soiled whites (that’s all Rata hires: women; that’s all they wear, soiled whites) — slid a Collins glass full of amber and crushed ice in front of me, a dare. I waited. In a minute she spoke, “Rata says whatever you want.” I asked her to bring whatever she thought was best today.
The amber was Calvados: score 2 for Rata, nothing but net.
The bartender slid the hot plate in front of me: a carne asada variation in tomato tortillas, covered with Rata’s famous orange sauce. I asked for a glass of ice water. Yeah, I don’t know why they call it orange either. I took a picture, see?
It was good. I mean, really really good. I also had 6 tacos; they were both moist and crunchy. The meat, like the carne asada, was flavorful, almost gamey. Water gone I finished my Calvados and the bartender brought another. She looked good, really really good.
Later I had sopapillas with honey and cinnamon.
I enjoyed the meal and will go back to try the rest of the menu, and not just because Rata has told me my money’s no good there. Everything about the joint speaks to me in a raspily familiar, phlegm-coated voice that hints of pickpockets, dirty leg and home.
If I had any complaint it might have been the oddly high pitched whelps that arose once or twice from the kitchen area during my meal, only to be suddenly cut off, as though someone had just put down their pet. While I’m sure it was just a couple of line cooks goofing off, it was unsettling.
It’s nearly 6 PM and Rata’s still serving up street food to the southbound commuters. The luxury cars still stretch down to Southwest Blvd. It’s hot, unseasonable so, and the overturned galvanized steel trash can lids Rata’s using — he got the idea from an artiste at a First Friday dig in the Crossroads — to braise the meat for his asadas, burritos and tacos radiate the day’s heat and more back into our faces.
I’ve got my nose right over one of the trash lids, borrowed from Tina’s Hair Salon around the corner, sweeping the delectable smells into my soul.
“Street cooking,” Rata opens. “I got my start in Hidalgo, where I’m from you know, right on the border, a little bit of nothin’, but we moved to Juarez when I was in high school and that was big, man, all of a sudden I was doing two, three dozen people for lunch. Street people, they doan know nothin about how to find and prepare the meat, how to cut and marinate it, so they were always getting’ worms or worse, plus shittin’ themselves all the time. Or they’d make a mess of the animal but not kill it – nothing worse than leaving a wounded animal alive.”
“Here? Oh, these people doan know about all that, ‘sides, it’s all institutionalized in KC, there’s a whole program goin’ on. It’s why you doan see strays so much downtown, uptown or the west side. And the neighborhoods the Chinos locate their buffets? No stray problem there, either.”
“East side?”, he adds. “All fish, man. The city lakes and ponds, you know, where everyone be dumpin their shit, their rubbers n’ stuff? That’s all being fished.”
But as the Star and a few local bloggers have noted, there are also a number of city sponsored assistance programs available on the east side. Not so much here on the west side.
“Yeah, no one’s givin’ back round here. So I looked ’round, I’m doing well, my family’s good, I jes need to do this, you know. ‘sides, it doan cost me nothin but time, right? The cash the commuters drop on Wednesdays? That goes into the pot, helps pay for all the homeless, welfare bandits and just outright lazy bums we feed. An’ their happy to do it – they ain’t gettin’ this food any other way, right?”
Just then a Mercedes blond asks about the meat in her carnita. Rata tells her it comes from a local, organic and sustainable source. He can drop the esse accent as fast as Tyson once dropped everyone else – and the blond smiles and thanks him, offers Rata a tip. He smiles gently back at her, shakes his head and tells her to enjoy the meal.
“See, hommie? They love this stuff.”
By 7 PM I’m tilted against someone’s car, sharing a joint with Rata while we watch the last few pieces of food sizzle on the trashcan lids. There’s maybe 5 pounds of marinated meat left in one Coleman cooler. Rata explains that in a few minutes the chefs from La Fonda, El Pueblito and Taqueria Mexico will send a few busboys round to collect it, yet another way Rata gives back.
“Sure, I could charge them. But why be greedy?”
Thirty minutes later Rata’s finished cleaning his tools and has loaded them back into his idling Chevy, the glass-packs burbling slowly. The car radio is on low, but I can hear KCUR – The World is on.
Rata’s left the trash can lids on the parking lot pavement, pieces of cooked meat adhered to the scorched metal.
“The few remaining neighborhood strays will clean that up real good,” Rata says. “Come tomorrow all Tina will need to do is rinse them with a hose. Next week we’ll start all over again. Life’s a circle, man.”
WHERE: Chi-Chi’s Taqueria, Southwest Johnson County.
WHEN: Lunch and dinner: Mon. thru Sun., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., bar open until 1 a.m.
DINE-IN-ABILITY: The main dining room seats over 100 with another 20 seats at the bar. Yes, it’s THAT big! The decor is Early Thoughtless, complete with that Poorly Cleaned touch, though you shouldn’t actually catch anything from the furniture, so you’ll want to dine in (although carryout is available). Come early Fridays as the satellite will show nothing but wrasslin’ all day and it fills by 11:30. While children have occasionally been spotted in Chi-Chi’s, it’s not advisable due to a few open missing person reports (that we were unable to verify.)
WHAT: A 1-page menu featuring Chef Alex Reyes’ unique takes on traditional Mexican street food made from traditional urban sources.
TRY IT, YOU’LL LIKE IT: Rata’s pollo asada tastes amazingly exactly like chicken.