My family went to Chi Chi’s to mark all of life’s minor celebrations: an A on a test, my sister earning a spot in the school play, the dog quit barfing blood. Afterall, Chi Chi’s was “a celebration of food,” and the antibiotics were working. Spritzie would live. And we were going to celebrate.
Any occassion made the list: long weekends, holidays, an ill-fated turn of the crockpot stew recipe. But our number one reason to go was birthdays–because on birthdays, they brought out a hat–a sombrero–and made a big production with candles, singing, and a signature “Ole!” at the end. Soon, we had a stockpile of these birthday sombreros in the basement, which were also good as instant Halloween costumes.
These were the heady years of middle school for me, days that I would lug a 30-pound backpack around, drop it dramatically and liberatingly on the floor when I got home, and slump to the couch for some MTV–only they had stopped playing videos by now, showing only what seemed like a non-stop episode of My So Called Life on repeat. My So Called Life indeed. At least the dog had stopped barfing. I can still see the sky opening, and my heavy heart lightening, as I hear the ring in my mother’s voice when she announces, “we’re going to Chi Chi’s tonight!”
We were a family that enjoyed beans cooked in lard. The only exception was my grandmother, whom to the end remained paranoid that Chi Chi’s kept the lights low “for a reason,” always suspicious that something was wrong with the food. But she couldn’t have predicted what would come later.
Aside from the Taco Bell Chihuahua, Chi Chi’s was my first exposure to the Spanish language, learning to appreciate the beauty of words like “Salsafication” and “Chimichanga”. I learned that free chips and salsa were the standard by which to judge all Mexican restaurants; Chi Chi’s did it right, bringing out two dishes of salsa–one hot and one mild–and a generous basket of light, greasy, and heavily-salted tortilla chips. And as you ate them, you would develop a gluey, thickening feeling in the stomach, and yet you consumed them as though they were in a feeding bag attached to your face.
As the years went on, we continued to dine at Chi Chi’s for middle school graduations, getting my first job, the crockpot breaking down. Dad always ordered the majestic margaritas–on the rocks, with salt. My sister was the nacho queen. I showed off my expert-level knowledge of 10th grade spanish. And my mother hummed the tune Tequila, claiming she had come up with the song herself.
But something was changing. At first, it seemed like it was in our heads–a spot on a fork, the salsa a little watery. The lob of beans on the plate coming out dry and cracked. The place starting to look a little dingey. The Simpsons Arcade Game in the lobby with a sign that read Out of Order. All of this seemed forgiveable, fixable in good time.
Then, on one of our birthdays, it happened. Everything was the same, at first. A faint clapping sound could be heard originating from the kitchen. The doors of hell kicked open, and a cackle of waitresses poured out, chanting. All of the other tables looked up to see who the victim would be. We could barely suppress our smirks and smiles; we knew who it was. The aproned demons surrounded our table, shrieking “Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy birthday, to you,” a 15 second chant that seemed to flare into a thousand eternities. The “Ole!” shouted. Like usual, they placed a sombrero on Dad’s head, a scoop of ice cream in front of him, and Mom took a picture while he put on a pained expression for the camera.
And then it happened. Chi Chi’s took the hat back. The birthday sombrero was no longer complimentary. Now we knew one thing for sure: Chi Chi’s was going downhill. After the hat incident, which no one ever spoke of again, we frequented Chi Chi’s less often. The stockpiles of sombreros in the basement went in the yard sale pile. And for my high school graduation, we went to Don Pablo’s.
Everyone has their last Chi Chi’s memory. Mine was 2002 and I had a college final project due for Spanish 201, and needed material for a presentation I had to give. I decided to be a comedian, so I rounded up some friends, a camera, and one of the old sombreros, deeming it “Una Noche de Chi Chi’s.” The pictures were a visual to a narrative that I would give in Spanish about the deliciousness of Chi Chi’s food and ensuing bowel discomfort. I took pictures of nachos, extreme close-ups of beans, and pictures of toilets.
I flubbed my way through the presentation, half-murmuring English words and smiling sheepishly, but got an A anyway. In life, a couple of jokes about food poisoning will get you far.
A few weeks later, a guy drove his car through the front door in a jealous rage over seeing his girl in there with another man. With the stucco walls in shambles, our Chi Chi’s was gone. The picture at the beginning of this post was our Chi Chi’s. Then things took an even sadder turn when in 2003, the entire chain filed for bankruptcy.
But what happened next would seal their fate.
In late 2003, in Pennsylvania, the Beaver County Health Department began to notice a strange number of cases of Hepatitis A. The Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDOH) began investigating the apparent outbreak, and learned through interviews that all case patients had eaten at the Chi Chi’s restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall in the weeks before becoming ill.
“On November 3, PDOH issued a hepatitis A advisory, encouraging anyone who had eaten at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi’s restaurant within the past 14 days to receive an Immune globulin (Ig) shot to prevent becoming ill with the hepatitis A virus.
By November 7, PDOH had identified 130 people who had contracted hepatitis A as part of the outbreak. The number had grown to 240 cases by November 11, and kept climbing. By November 14, three people had died due to liver failure caused by hepatitis A, and the number of ill people had risen to 500.”
In the end, over 650 confirmed cases of hepatitis A, both primary and secondary, were linked to consumption of green onions at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi’s. It would be the worst Hepatitis outbreak in United States history. The victims included “at least 13 employees of the restaurant, and numerous residents of six other states. Four people died as a consequence of their hepatitis A illness. In addition, more than 9,000 people who had eaten at the restaurant during the period of potential exposure, or who had been exposed to ill Chi-Chi’s customers, obtained immune globulin shots to prevent hepatitis A infection.”
Unlike some bad beef at a Taco Bell, Hepatitis will make it happen. On September 18th, 2004, all Chi Chi’s restaurants closed their doors for good. Though many have been coverted to other restaurants under the Outback Brand, many of the former Chi Chi’s buildings still remain today, abandoned and rotting, haunting tomes of yesteryear.
In epilogue, the Chi Chi’s brand still survives through Hormel foods, in a line of canned foods, salsas and pre-mixed cocktails available at grocers.
I think there is a song that goes…
“So Drink To Me
Drink To My Health
You Know I Can’t Drink Any More
Don’t drink the water.
Drink the margaritas.
I completely made that up. (With some help from Paul McCartney.)
Thank you to this awesome blog, for the photographs: Creepy Abandoned Chi Chi’s