with gallery: Chela's offers delicious, authentic Mexican fare
The food business is in Adrian Iraol's blood. A native of Mexico City, his great-grandmother catered weddings that often lasted a week or two, preparing turkeys, lambs, rice and beans required for the celebrations. His grandparents met while they both worked for his great-grandmother. And his father owned parking lots; each one had a stand that sold tacos.
"It's always piqued my curiosity how a business like this would do in the States," he said. The owner of a construction business now living in Saline, Iraol was leary of branching out into the restaurant business, and decided to test his concept on friends, who gave him a positive response.
Nine weeks ago, he opened Chela's Restaurant & Taqueria, which is a family affair. His wife helped set up the dining area, while his three children, two college-aged and one a junior in high school, work there as well.
"We've been overwhelmed" Iraol says, with people who have lived in Chicago and Texas telling him they've been looking for a place like this. He says the restaurant fills a niche for authentic, Mexican street-style food.
I couldn't agree more that Chela's fills this niche. I've often lamented the fact that Ann Arbor seems to have a shortage of restaurants featuring authentic Mexican food, those places with an unobtrusive storefront that you can just stop in and get a quick taco or burrito that aren't part of a chain.
Chela's is as unassuming as it gets. You can easily drive by it, housed in a small shopping plaza on Maple and Liberty. Iraol says he tried to furnish on a budget, purchasing items from the The Parthenon, which recently went out of business, and from Habitat For Humanity. Inside, there's little trace of Mexican decor, just bright yellow walls, linoleum tables and chairs and a counter where you place your order.
It's easy to overlook the bland aesthetics, since the food here is so good. Chela's menu is in English on one side and Spanish on the other. It specializes in the basics: tacos, quesadillas, tamales and burritos; it serves brunch on weekends featuring huevos rancheros. I didn't have the opportunity to sample the morning options, but if it's anything like the rest of what's offered here, that's worth trying.
693 S. Maple Road, Ann Arbor
- Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
- Plastic: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Inexpensive
- Noise level: Quiet
- Wheelchair access: Yes
I thoroughly enjoyed the guacamole, so much that I needed to order it on both my visits. It was thick and creamy, infused with big chunks of tomatoes and pieces of cilantro, while the chips were served warm. I tried both salsas; the red was nicely spicy as promised, while the lime green sauce, which appeared deceptively watery and bland, packed a nice punch of flavor from the jalapenos, cilantro and garlic. The red salsa was made hotter from two spicy peppers: chile de arbol and guajillo.
Even a basic salad here was wonderful, with healthful greens. Slices of avocado and large pieces of queso fresco, a soft, mild white Mexican cheese, made it heartier, along with a rich, creamy Ranch dressing.
I preferred the basic plain cheese quesadilla — perfectly grilled in a homemade tortilla oozing with melted cheese — over the one with chipotle chicken. There wasn't nearly enough of the chicken, and it tasted dry. The giant burrito was full of fresh rice and beans; I enjoyed both the version with chicken and barbacoa (marinated beef) with a smoky flavor.
The tortas, a giant sandwich that I ordered with breaded chicken, was fine, served on a fresh bun with lettuce, but it was so similar to an American chicken sandwich that I would skip it, instead opting for more authentic-tasting fare. Chela's offers chicken, pork, cheese, strawberry and pineapple tamales. I longed to try the exotic-sounding fruit versions, but they were out of them. However, both the chicken and cheese were hearty and delicious.
The biggest shortcoming in our meals here were the tacos. They're served in a soft tortilla that was not particularly flavorful. There were only three small slivers of carne asada in the beef taco. The potato and vegetarian tacos we ordered were quite tasty, but all were small. Though these are only $1.85 apiece, you'll need to order a few if these are the focus of your meal.
The generally high quality, authentic food can be had for incredibly low prices. The giant burrito and torta each were only $6, which is the highest price on the entire menu.
Our food was freshly prepared and delivered with remarkable speed, under 10 minutes, both on our first visit, when we ordered only a few items and then on our second, when the number of dishes totaled a dozen. Not one item was left out, and the servers were especially pleasant.
I am thrilled to report about this discovery, though word has clearly gotten out. On both visits, the small eatery was full of customers, everyone from parents with young children, to people stopping by on their way home from work. It doesn't surprise me, as they're likely smart enough to spot a great value when they see it.