If you’ve never been to Mexico it is difficult to even imagine how much you’re missing out on. There has been previous discussion about the inauthenticity of our Americanized Mexican food, but this fact is even clearer when you consider the wonder that is Mexican street food. The streets of Mexico City are filled with hundreds of pop-up restaurants and tiny food carts each one boasting some of the best food in the country. For most people Mexican street food has been something considered only found in Mexico. Oh, and Ann Arbor.
A five minute drive from Main Street, in a tiny plaza on South Maple is Chela’s Restaurant and Taqueria. It is the definition of a dive restaurant, complete with unassuming décor, fast-food service, and happily reasonable prices.
Chela’s is the creation of husband and wife, Adrian and Lori Iraola. Through neither had any direct experience in the food industry, owning a restaurant was always the dream. Lori explained that for years Adrian supported her in the fulfillment of her own passions, until finally with Adrian’s dream of an authentic Mexican taqueria still possible, she asked “Can we now go after yours?”
The type of restaurant was obvious. Adrian was born in the heart of Mexico City and both he and Lori share a love for Mexican street food. With this inspiration behind it, Chela’s is a true family business. The restaurant is named after Adrian’s mother and the logo features an iguana and a cardinal, each a tribute to Adrian’s parents. Adrian and Lori work in the restaurant daily with help from their trusted chefs and a few other employees, including their son Andrew who takes orders at the counter.
The food at Chela’s seems to be filling a gap in the city’s culinary scene. Open less than a year, the restaurant has already established a cult-like following. The restaurant’s popularity has grown from its original clientele of hungry locals to students and professors from the University, visiting families, and pretty much anyone who loves real Mexican food.
The menu is simple and unfussed, offering classics such as al pastor tacos, tortas, and chicken tamales. The authenticity of the food is very important. In a hipster city twist, however, the food is actually much healthier than its street food twin. Many of the dishes and specials add up to less than 500 calories through efforts such as using less oil, grilling instead of frying, and finding healthier alternatives to the popular staple, lard. Adrian spoke with some disdain for more Americanized restaurants, saying “If you pretend to know something that you don’t, you fool some people but not the ones that actually know.” At Chela’s there is no fooling around. Aside from the slight alternations in the interest of health, the goal it seems it to take these dishes straight off the streets of La Ciudad and into the hands of hungry Ann Arborites.
But what is so magical about this food? What makes it different than just regular old beans, rice, and a beef-stuffed enchilada? The trouble is that although I will do my best to explain the culinary wonder that is Mexican street food, these descriptions will be of very little use. With food like this there is no way to dissect it, to analyze it, to isolate its flavors and make critiques on what works and what doesn’t work. It’s a food that simply must speak for itself.
Each dish is presented simply in wax-paper baskets with a few garnishes of pickled carrot and tiny cups of salsa. My personal favorites have been the tacos, each only $1.85. The restaurant offers nine different kinds ranging from the spicy chorizo/beef combination of the campechana, to the mild taste and creamy texture of the potatoes with chili poblanos. However, on Fridays Chela’s offers their fish taco. Grilled fish is set on a bed of purple cabbage and topped with onion and cilantro. As basic as it sounds, these little bad boys are layered with flavor. After you add your choice of salsa, I prefer a mixture of the mild green and spicy red, the fish taco delivers a sweet corn flavor from the tortillas, a peppery bit from the fish and cabbage, and that fresh pop of lime, essential to any good Mexican dish.
I was able to sample the torta, a traditional Mexican sandwich. A toasted roll sits on either end of a pile of barbecued pork (or one of the other nine options), onion, cheese, tomato, guacamole, and a ring of pineapple for sweetness. It’s messy. It’s structurally unstable. But it’s worth it.
Chela’s also serves several sides and desserts. The salsa and guacamole with chips are lime-soaked bowls of heaven. I found myself dipping everything I ate into the guacamole. On my first visit I also tried the flan, a Mexican custard cake. If you’re never had flan before, I suggest you try it at Chela’s. The smooth texture and soft burnt caramel flavor are successfully achieved and it makes a nice little dessert for the end of a meal. But with this street-style food virtually impossible to criticize, it seems that Chela’s can do no wrong. It’s a short menu, but without any unpopular dishes. Even the hibiscus tea, called jamaica, though perhaps a bit on the sweet side, is cool and refreshing with distinct floral notes and a rich purple color.
Final Recommendation: If you love real Mexican food and have not yet been to Chela’s, you are only hurting yourself. If you think you hate Mexican food, Chela’s will prove you wrong. This restaurant is different from the other that I have looked into, simply because here is no need to dress up, to grab six or seven girlfriends, and drop a hundred dollars on a meal. At Chela’s you don’t pay for atmosphere or rare ingredients or complicated techniques. The food that you will get is delicious not because it was made to be delicious but simply because it is. The flavors are so pure, classic and nostalgic that making these dishes good is effortless. Unlike most restaurants where a large amount of time is put into creating a balance of flavors and texture, street food is praised for its imperfections, it’s rather rebellious deviation from the rules of the elite culinary world. The food at Chela’s is about much more than just following recipes, it’s about following a culture.
If you would like to know more about Chela’s here is some basic contact information:
693 S. Maple Rd. Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Phone: (734) 332-6055
Monday-Saturday 10:30AM-9PM Sunday 10:30AM-8PM
Directions if taking a bus: You can get to Chela’s by taking the Route 8 bus Pauline from the Blake Transit Center. You can also use Google Maps for more details and other options.