Don Chilitos 1 is not so much a Mexican restaurant as an American idea of what a Mexican restaurant is. An old idea.
Mexican food in America has so many incarnations and varieties that it’s nearly impossible to quantify them. Don Chilitos is a type of Mexican place that your grandma can get behind, an establishment that embodies the 1970s and 80s, when many ethnic and national cuisines achieved mainstream status by mainstreaming their flavor palates, using conventional ingredients and catering to the ravenous gullets of their clientele.
These days things are a little different. Mexican-American food is often prepared and served by real life actual Mexican people. You see more fresh cilantro, moles, corn tortillas, and green salsa on menus than you used to. They may even dress it up a bit to make it look nice. There are often menu options that approach a degree of authenticity. I’m thinking of places like Fronteras, Dos Reales and Mi Ranchito.
Despite these improvements, 1990s era Mexican food doesn’t get a lot of love from the food-savvy but remains extremely popular with the masses of regular people who just want to get full for $6.95 before resuming the mindless drudgery that is the work week. 2 And like I said, the food isn’t bad.
I take this uncharacteristically generous approach in order to make a point. Having been to Don Chilitos a couple times recently, I think it is useful to illustrate just how far we’ve come. You see, Don Chilitos is super old school. It has been around since the middle 1970s before most people cared about authenticity or healthiness or frills. And it displays an almost admirable resistance to any restaurant trend or development over the last 35 years.
This place looks every bit its age. The decor is an assemblage of aging ceramic tile on the walls, painted lattice, creaky wooden booths, childlike murals, stained glass and neon beer signs. There are a few rooms that each have a slightly different vibe but it’s all sort of a mess. This is the best photo I could get without shoving my phone in someone’s face:
Did I mention that this place is a cafeteria? Seriously. You walk in and are faced with a long stainless steel cafeteria line. Grab a tray, some silverware and some napkins and you are ready to place your order.
There is a ton of stuff on the menu and most of it involves your choice of sauce. You can top that burrito off with orange queso sauce which they call “CCQ”3), red sauce or chili con carne. I went nuts and ordered one “Chilito Style” which is red sauce, sour cream, black olives and cheese.
In case a cup of melted cheese sauce isn’t enough, you can get a “Big Top” which is double the topping for an extra buck or so. Can’t decide on sauces? No problem! Get two sauces for 85 cents! Chili con carne with CCQ anyone?
You can also get the sauces on their chimichangas (essentially a deep-fried burrito) or this beauty, the seafood empanada:
Seafood Empanada: A deep-fried pastry shell filled with zesty seafood rangoon and topped with your choice of Red Sauce, CCQ or Chilito style topping.
They had me at “zesty seafood rangoon.”
If Chimpotle orders and eats the seafood empanada with CCQ from Don Chilitos I will pay for his meal, including the alcoholic beverage of his choice.
Anyhow, just when you thought this place couldn’t get weirder it turns out they heat up burritos and other things in microwave ovens. I’m not sure if the burritos are pre-made or thrown together on the spot, but they are warmed just enough to take the chill off and subsequently covered with piping hot sauce. Yes, a microwaved burrito.
But seriously if you’re not an idiot, you can get out of here without dying. I have had the tacos and they are actually pretty good. Yes, they are the hard taco shells with ground beef, shredded yellow cheese and iceberg lettuce, but Don Chilitos makes them about as well as you can. And they are made to order and never touch a microwave oven.
The burritos are only ok. I’m not a fan of the super tiny ground beef they use although they season it well. Mine was definitely not hot enough. The red sauce is just not that good, probably because its primary ingredient comes from a can.
And then there are the salsas.
Not too appetizing is it? But they are serviceable as taco flavor-enhancing agents. The hot salsa is actually a tad spicy, which surprised me frankly. The real craziness is right next door: a veritable shit-ton of tortilla chips in a steamtable bin.
That’s lot of chips! It strikes me as crazy that they go through this many in a day, much less a single lunch rush, but apparently it works for them. It also serves to keep the chips slightly warm. This is the aspect of Don Chilitos that convinces me that people with big appetites love this restaurant. I can’t fathom choking down a beef burrito Chilito style, following it with a basket of chips and then downing half a dozen sopapillas for dessert.
Which reminds me: ALL YOU CAN EAT SOPAPILLAS! Everyone who likes Don Chilitos freaks out about these little deep fried sugary nuggets.
In my opinion, the sopapillas at Don Chilitos are terrible. They are far too dense and quickly get chewy and dry. I’ll wager they dump them by the Sysco bag-full into the deep fryers. But what the hell, you can eat 20 of them if you want. And I’m sure some people do.
To sum up, this place is crazy. But as hard as it tries, Don Chilitos won’t kill you.
1. A big, DLC-sized shout out to my co-worker who suggested this place and