Chi Chi’s: A Story of Salsa and Food Poisoning

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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.

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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.
Ole.”

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

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33 responses to “Chi Chi’s: A Story of Salsa and Food Poisoning

  1. Oh dear… I miss my fried ice cream… ::sniffle::

  2. the girlfriend

    RIP Chi Chis

  3. Holy Hell! I had food poisoning at Chi Chi’s in the 90’s. Glad I didn’t get the Hep!

  4. I have never eaten at a chi chi’s, yet this all made me very sad.

    I think it’s the abandoned buildings that does it to me. They aern’t at that interesting ghostly-look-at-the-past abandoned point. They just look lonely.

  5. Here in the Great White North, Chi-Chi’s closed in the late 1980s. Although never a large outfit, it was very popular. So to Canadian eyes, they have been gone for an extremely long time; and long forgotten.
    They had rented high traffic sites in large cities, and after the ‘branch’ closed, their former sites were re-rented quickly.
    Many street front locations in Toronto are now KFC/TB locations…

  6. I loved Chi-Chi’s! Thanks for posting this. It brought me back.

  7. I loved ChiChis, as well as I loved to “hate” it. I’m in Canada, and remember the chain closing here in the late 1980s, just like Geoffrey’s post above. I had a few similar experiences to those in the article- the birthdays (although we never got a “free sombrero” ;-)); any excuse for an “occasion” to go out as a family. We loved the “Seafood” enchiladas- I believe the menu called them the “Cancun”, even then knowing it was immitation crab meat and a whole lotta fat and flour. It was an easy, fun place to go as a family, tacky as it was (really the restaurant of the 80s!). It was also a time when I hadn’t really thought I’d actually go to Mexico, nor had anyone I knew- or only a very few. Starting in the 90s, though, almost everyone I knew had or was going to Mexico. Often Cancun.
    My clearest memory, though, was taking the transit bus, the longest bus route in our city, from the university to home on a Tuesday late afternoon. It went right past “our” ChiChis about half way home. My friend I would smile, get off, and go into the lounge, ordering half-priced huge strawberry margaritas (“Margarita Tuesdays”) and help ourselves to the free appetizer bar. Yes, free Salsa Con Queso and all the chips, beans, etc you can eat! Needless to say, we didn’t need dinner on those Tuesdays. Perhaps amusing as I, unlike most university/college students, did not party often nor get drunk.
    I miss ChiChis.
    Thanks for the rekindling of memories.
    PS. I had a microbiology professor in the late 80s who would constantly joke about Chi Chis (he pronounced them “Cai Cais”) and their “microflora”. Little did we know…

  8. awww – i miss the ChiChi’s

    sad.

    there’s no where quite like it anymore.

    we’ll just have to eat actual mexican food instead…

  9. My girlfriends and I would go there almost every Saturday, we shared a lot of laughs in Chi-Chi’s, such a sad end.

    p.s. Band on The Run… great album. olé

  10. Yeah my experience with Chi-Chi’s is similar, I still have a stack of sombrero’s.
    We went all the time. At some point there was rumours of a rat infestation, or maybe roaches. I don’t have any hard proof, it’s like those rumours of “that chinese place” that they found dogs in the freezer. The arcade machines used to be awesome, then they downgraded from 4 decent games to 1 bowling game, that was unplugged most of the time until it vanished. The sombrero’s stopped being complimentary. The salsa with the pre-dinner chips got less good, they said it was a new recipe. Eventually the pre-dinner chips vanished. The fried ice cream was pretty awesome, it was a formidable opponent at one point. It was a decent amount of ice cream with a breaded shell. That eventually shrunk to something just more than 1 scoop of ice cream with a sparse coating of bread crumbs. The end of the chips was pretty much the last straw for me, I never got food poisoning, but my dad did, and a few of my friends did. It’s now a Chilis. Consider yourself lucky that a car mercifully ended things for your location.

  11. brenton Kevill

    to all that have posted comments positive and negative say what you like but We all have a fond memory of the company . I have many many memories i was employed by the company from 1990 -2005 and it was a very sad day to make my last fried ice cream . This company took me unde rit’s wing and taught me the meaniung of true hospitality .i had the pleasure of being in upper management corporate world but started as a bus boy when i was 13 in Appleton WI and until i was 28 years old . I ha dthe pleasure of being in over 100 stores in my time from place to place city to city and state to state and countries i got to visit and open stores . the one thing iI made sure of when i left that i neve rreturned my rs books with all my recipies so i may cherish the memories for life and share with you all from time to time .

    • Brenton – I am a reporter working on a story that may include Chi-Chi’s. Please contact me (dmcnally@hearst.com). I’d love to pick your brain about Chi-Chi’s in it’s heyday.

    • Brenton….you might of literally have answered a prayer …very long story…I believe if you respond to this it will go to my email which is not public….I have a unique story and really hope you see this ….. I am just in search of 1 little piece of information.

  12. I remember Chi-Chis growing up in Atlanta in the 1980s. My highschool Spanish club would go to the Chi-Chis at the mall once a year with the school’s Spanish teacher for a “cultural field trip.” We all piled in the big booths and slurped down pitchers of Coke with our nachos and chimichangas. The funniest part was that our Spanish teacher was from Cuba and hated Mexican food, so she just drank margaritas. The photos of the abandoned Chi-Chis take me back to a different time of mullets, bitchin Camaros, and Chi-Chis.

  13. I know some of those pictures. Some of those are from the Madison,WI location, which I remember going to very often, that Booth picture… I sat in those very booths. I miss going here…. :(

  14. I worked in the Beaver Valley Mall where the outbreak happened. Until the very last day. And I’m sorry you and your family saw the slow demise of a company that you once loved. But as I read your blog, it made me feel like I did those final days. I was angry at the media for demonizing us. I was mad at Sysco for supplying us with those onions. I was mad at all of the customers who once loved us and now made fun of us. I too saw the changes in the Sombrero tradition. I thought it was a sign of the times. But I still loved that place. They were a great company to work for. Our particular store was exceptionally well maintained. Most of the employees were ATC students and college students at Penn state. Those 13 ppl that became sick, were my friends. Some of the best friends I’ve ever had. There is no way anyone can fathom had sad we all were to know that we could have delivered a product that was tainted like that.

    But what people don’t know behind the headlines, was that those green onions had made people sick in two other states before us. That the FDA did not issue a warning until almost 2 months later. When the warning to cook our green onions was received in our store, it (the salsa) was already on the tables. See, the fields had flooded in the farm in Mexico where they came from, and the workers there used the fields for a restroom since none were provided. So although Chi chis, sysco, the farmers and everyone was sued, why didn’t they sue the FDA who clearly knew there was a problem long before it got to our store.

    The night Chi chis closed was one of the saddest nights of my life. There were grown men who were our regulars there crying with us. It was that kind of a place. We loved our jobs and our customers loved us. They knew our families, they got us presents on our birthdays, they celebrated,(much like yours) on their birthdays. We were all unemployed. No way to pay our bills after suffering the humiliation that the media bestowed upon us. We were crucified in the press. They said we were dirty, and you can’t live that down.

  15. I loved Chi Chi’s and still do.

  16. this was a great place it is very missed

  17. I wish chi chis would reopen just change the name if needed .I couldnt get past the beef chimichangas , I wish I could find a back up .I miss my weekly visits.

  18. I grew up going to Chi-Chi’s all the time around the Indianapolis / Castleton, IN area.. and even celebrated at least one birthday there where they gave me a complimentary sombrero! My family loved it, though we weren’t there constantly like some. Imagine my delight last year when my friend and I were on a 2 week European vacation and saw there was one in Brussels, Belgium during our sight seeing bus tour! As we were spending 4 days there, we did make it in for a meal and it was just like old times!!

    I’m so sad that Chi-Chi’s doesn’t operate restaurants in America anymore… I remember their awesome salsa, the corn cakes, chimichangas and the Mexican fried ice cream!! Several months ago I was visiting a college friend whose family lives in Seymour, IN where a Tumbleweed restaurant exists and we ate there. I really liked it, but at the time had no idea this is actually an extension of Chi-Chi’s! Now that I know, I will definitely go back next time I’m in the area! Though I live in Chicago now and Seymour is about 5 hours from here. However, I continue to support Chi-Chi’s by purchasing their grocery products when I can… mostly the salsas and tortillas. I really hope one day they might consider re-opening restaurants in America. They were definitely one of my favorites as a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s!!

    • That is really sad, I have a lot of good memories of Chi Chi’s, that was the spot for me and my fiance, we would meet up with another couple that were friends of our’s and hang out there half of the night, our favorite dish was the Chimmichangas, and several margaritas!!

  19. My wife and I started going there back in the early 90s up to the time ours closed around 2000. The chimichangas were the primary reason we went. And the sweet corn cake. Even though, there were times on and off I would walk out complaining. Because sometimes the food was bad quality, made me feel ill, or just ripped off. Other times it was good. By reading stories around the Internet, chi chi’s always had a quality problem. But the way I see it, there is no excuse for sending a plate of bad beans out to the table. I saw that many times. Seems to me that Chi Chi’s needed some REAL management. But they never did. Whoever it was, they didn’t put safety and quality first. Now imagine if someone decided to bring it back right this time. They would have people lining up moreso than before.

    I have to also wonder if the reason Chi Chi’s struggled so often is because of sabotage from other restaurants. Because I know they took the business away from some of them.

  20. Lawrence Schultz

    I wish I could obtain the recipe for the hot salsa they used to serve, before they changed it and it was nothing more than very hot onions and tomato sauce. What a disappointment that was. The enchiladas they used to make with just a touch of green chilies was fantastic too. I’ve never had enchiladas that were that good since.😞

  21. shane w. dement

    I worked at chica chi’s. This story is a crock of shit!!!!! We closed NOT Due to improper food preparation, BUT because the company was GREEDY. WE HAD managers and District managers and CEO’S MAKING NFL salaries that SUCKED US DRY. AS for the green onion scare, Every Major Chain Restaurant had the SAME PROBLEM. I KNOW, I WAS THERE. DOUCHEBAGS…

  22. We used to eat there at the very least 3-5 times a week while I was growing up! I miss it sooo much. I would love to find the house dressing recipe. I’d love to have an.opportunity to eat at Chi Chi’s one last time. Please email me @ christi_mcreynolds@yahoo.com if anyone has the house dressing recipe. Thanks! #goodmemories

    • Chi Chi’s Taco Salad Dressing

      1 cup sour cream
      1/2 cup mayonnaise
      1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
      3/4 teaspoon chili powder
      2 teaspoons dried minced onion
      1 1/2 teaspoons grated lime zest
      1 teaspoon lime juice

  23. i loved chi chi s growing up in bloomington in we had at one time the highest groessing store in America i remember on Friday or Saturday night you might wait over an hour for a table. As far as the hepatitis scare i worked almost a decade in the culinary field and sysco (the wholesale supplier of the green onions) is used in almost all restaurants, so its a real shame they were singled out i will always love them and pray for the return of the “el grande buro”

  24. Pingback: Chi-Chis Hepatitis A Outbreak | comm300jessescanga

  25. So where did the Hepatitis A come from? What are the symptoms? Maybe others got it but never went to the hospital?

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