Don't mess with the classics: Chela's brings authentic Mexican taste to Ann Arbor

Virginia Lozano/Daily
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By Amelia Zak, Daily Music Editor
Published April 1, 2015

Walk into Chela’s, a small Mexican eatery on South Maple Road just off West Liberty Street, and you’ll notice a fairly large, seemingly old, blown-up photograph tacked up onto one of the walls near the back. The photo is in black and white, and displays an overall-clad young child standing lazily in a dusty parking lot. There’s a small food stand behind him with the emboldened word “Taquería” pasted on its storefront. Without context, this picture is simple and mismatched against the colorful chairs and small peccadilloes dispersed throughout the eating room.

But ask Adrian Iraola, the store’s owner, about the photo in the back. Ask about the little boy in the photo, and how long ago it was taken, and why it hangs so proudly from the store’s back wall.

Ann Arbor residents and University students swim in a sea of food varieties. From Main Street to Kerrytown to the perimeters of the suburbs, good food isn’t hard to find. It’s the glory of the college town atmosphere: a large population of 20-somethings interested in providing genuine support to a food culture for their university. We benefit, in reputation and recognition, for the culture and tradition that this excellence provides. Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Fleetwood Diner, Frita Batidos, Blimpy Burger; Ann Arbor’s best is a seemingly endless list that is slowly expanding to the outskirts of our campus, just a short drive away, to Chela’s.

Adrian Iraola, a former architectural engineer and project manager for the city of Ann Arbor, had been searching for an accurate recreation of authentic Mexican cuisine. His wife Lori Iraola, an Ann Arbor native, experienced his insatiable plight.

“When he moved here, he couldn’t find it,” Lori said. “He could find a lot of very tasty food, a lot of variation of Mexican food, but we were looking for more of the original street food.”

Their search was vehement and vast; Adrian chuckled even at the recollections he has amassed from his search. He referenced one attempt at a restaurant in Ypsilanti.

“The dishes didn’t even resemble what they said they were selling! My wife and I came out and we got in our vehicle and we both reached for a piece of candy from the ashtray,” Iraola said. “We turned to each other and we asked, ‘Are you trying to get the taste out of your mouth, too?’ and we both said, ‘Yes!’ ”

The couple faced constant disappointment in their search for an authentic Mexican taste. Dreamily and constantly, they would discuss the possibility of opening a restaurant of their own, one where Adrian could provide “real tortillas and rich carnitas and homemade asada. None of this queso dip on the tacos. I was going to have onion and cilantro and a slice of lime, the way that it is supposed to be!”

But this dream was slow in coming to actual physical form. Its first foundations were first laid as far back as 27 years ago when Adrian signed himself up for small-business classes and courses in addition to his numerous early architectural projects. Adrian and Lori allowed life’s milestones to fill the next few decades of the couple’s lives, complete with marriage, children and career success, but the flame was never extinguished from the proverbial back burner on which the dream was placed. And Lori reiterates this, relaying their late night quiet discussions of the topic.

“We didn’t imagine the level of popularity we had coming. We thought it would be a little ‘Ma and Pa’ diner kind of place and we’d maybe have some regulars,” Lori said. “Lying in bed, we used to think, ‘What kind of numbers are we going to do?’ ”

The couple’s experiences with specious Mexican restaurants did continue to stockpile. This built-up disquietude, working in tandem with the ever-powerful passage of time, pushed Adrian and Lori to inch closer and closer to their dream. Edging into his 60s, and following the completion of an especially large parking garage project, Lori finally motivated Adrian enough with the first moves of the Chela’s project. A former stay-at-home mom and successful equestrian coach, Lori visited numerous auctions and started buying kitchen equipment. Drawing up the business plans and designing kitchen and eating space floor plans, the side project and buried dream slowly started to build from its hypothetical bedrock.

Adrian and his wife Lori opened Chela’s doors in May 2012 to critical success. They were, as Lori explains, unknowing of the void they were about to fill for so many people.

“Just in the first few days we opened we were running out of food,” Lori said. “We had to immediately hire new staff because everything just exploded. And it’s still growing.”

Harnessing the powers of authenticity, passion, incredible work ethic and simplicity, Chela’s seeks to amaze each and every customer who strolls through the door. As natives of Mexico City, both Adrian and the store’s manager, Enrique Aquino, inherently understand what flavors do and do not belong in authentic Mexican street cuisine. Perhaps even more importantly, the three have worked to buttress their restaurant with the same principles of proper Mexican street food: an appreciation of simple flavors and well-prepared, properly selected ingredients.

Adrian, Lori and Enrique couldn’t repeat the importance of simplicity enough. The greatest aversion and the greatest success of this institution is held in Chela’s’ refusal to tarnish or distract from the naturally abundant and richness of flavors that has always existed in authentic Mexican cuisine. Adrian likened it to a musical symphony.

“There are the classics, like in music, that you don’t tamper with,” Adrian said. “To improve them would be to destroy them. We feel that way about our foods here. We stick to the basics, and don’t tamper with them, but are always focusing on the little ways we can improve things.”

Take the restaurant’s vegetable tacos as an example.

“In Mexico, it’s probably not a very popular item,” Lori, a vegetarian herself, said. “And there are a lot of vegetarian options here. We take what would be carne asada or barbacoa and replace them with potatoes and a sautéed vegetable mix.” They’re creating an innovative version of an unpopular option using simplicity, authenticity and a particular knowledge of what does and doesn’t belong in their foods.

The freshness of Chela’s’ produce and basic ingredients is another disciplined standard of their food service. Some of the produce is hand-selected, while the rest is specially ordered for daily deliveries from the markets that the team has determined are the best. Typically, Lori or another member of the Chela’s family ventures to local food markets daily to find and purchase the best vegetables and ingredients for the next day’s meals.

“As soon as the farmer’s market opens, we start to get our zucchini and other fresh vegetables,” Lori said. “And here’s one of the surprising things: People notice when I serve corn or lettuce that was cut that day. And so yes we are good at what we do, but people notice best when you don’t serve with any additives. You can taste the freshness.”

Using her developed, touchy-feely selection process and the use of high standard produce providers, like the avocado ripening center at Ann Arbor’s Frog Holler Produce, Lori is generating the axiom in all of its food service.

Embedded within the restaurant’s ethos, in tandem with the authenticity, simplicity and high standards of freshness, exists an incredible sense of work ethic. As Aquino describes, the passion for their product drives the incredible work ethic of each employee.

“That is something that I would like people to know. It tastes good because it is good, and it’s healthy,” Aquino said. “But it’s also so much closer to my heart, and our true passion, seeing a taco that is being made right, or a salsa that is made right.”

Like Adrian and Enrique, who both emigrated from Mexico City to the United States, many of the employees of the restaurant are first or second-generation immigrants. In American culture today, the stigma of the Mexican immigrant can be incorrectly perceived. When asked about this all-too-common societal blemish and his experiences with it, Aquino spoke seriously and passionately.

“These are people, myself included, who are motivated for more,” he said. “They have a passion for a better life, and are willing to work as hard as possible to reach their dreams. We have high-quality employees because Chela’s is surrounded by these ideas.”

To provide more context, Adrian provided an analogy: “Imagine the first-generation immigrants in any family. They had to work the hardest, taking any and all jobs as best they can so that they can give their ancestors a better life.”

Both Lori and Adrian could describe working minimum wage jobs at exceedingly young ages; for Adrian, he was driving a car for his father’s parking lot business at the age of 11. Lori used money from her various jobs growing up to buy clothes for herself.

“It isn’t that there is a lack of motivation among third-, fourth- or fifth-generation family members. It’s just that the circumstances are different,” Adrian said. “We’ve provided a great life for our children, and now they are learning how to build off of that.”

Before exiting Chela’s, upon finishing my interviews with Adrian, Lori and Enrique, and after being filled with delicious samples and treats, I looked back at the photograph hanging on the wall. It’s a picture of Adrian as a young boy, standing in a parking lot that his father built. Adrian’s father owned a parking lot business that placed taquería stands in each lot his company built. Light Mexican music plays from the speaker above as delicious smells start to emerge from the nearby kitchen. It’s 11:00 in the morning and the customers have already started to pour in. Sipping on a sample of their homemade limeade — the only ingredient are limes, sugar and water, just like grandma made it — an involuntary smile is painted across my face. Gazing at the photo, and then back at Adrian’s kind eyes as he stands next to me, I now understand the magic of this photo. The creation and success of Chela’s isn’t illusory, nor is it a result of fate, coincidence or highly strategic planning. This is authenticity.