Tampico! Tampico! Tampico!
By Mahadevan Ramesh
1975 Mexican restaurant magnate Marno McDermott and investor and ex-Green Bay Packer football star, Max McGee, opened the first Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn. Over the next several decades, the restaurant chain grows in size and stature.
About an eternity ago, I was studying in the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Unlike most desi students, I was among a handful that chose to live in the dorms and eat in the Commons. (For those of you who reckon things in Queen's English, the 'Commons' is American for 'Mess'). The food was not exactly gourmet, obviously, but it met our loose student standards of plentiful-ness and junkiness. The tragedy of the situation was that dinner services closed at 6.30 itself and come ten in the night, we would get those monstrous hunger pangs, threatening to implode our stomach walls.
Like primitive predators, we would prowl along the hallways, stand paralyzed near vending machines without proper change and finally, gather similarly afflicted people and head straight towards possible sources of food – just about anything on the food chain with the possible exception of nascent nitrogen. Any sane person would probably hit the local McDonald’s or grab a bag of chips at the nearest convenient store. But as students, we suffered from a chronic shortage of money, no matter which phase of the economic cycle prevailed. We had to be fiscally clever. And that’s when somebody snooped around and discovered that various watering holes around the campus have been on a promotional campaign, offering free munchies if we bought their cheap alcohol.. It took our graduate students brains just five seconds to figure that campus bars are the ideal solution to whet all our collective appetites – with junk food and drinks. With the minimal opening of the wallet too.
If you had ever been to the Ohio State University campus, you will know that the campus is spang in the middle of a forest of bars and pubs. And this process of choosing an ideal bar for our nocturnal pursuits was not easy. There were happy hours and happy hours. Impromptu promos. Unreliable word of the mouth endorsements. One wrong move, you would pay five bucks for a lousy beer and get a mere five morsels of non-biodegradable popcorn. Sometimes we had to scour the entire stretch of High Street to discover that el cheapo bar du jour.
It was in these desperate times that I had my first brush with the Chi-Chi’s haute couture . One day, someone packed some six of us in his huge Chevy and drove to the nearest Chi-Chi’s. The car ride took an awful long time and we almost had to reach the left armpit of the city.
At first glance, the Chi-Chi’s restaurant was stunning. Even though we confined our presence to only the bar area, it wasn't like anything I had been in before. It was very modern compared to the Mohenjadaro-esque campus salons. When we kept our elbows on the table, they didn't get stuck to the table. The waiters and bartenders were patrician in their manners, unlike the boorish campus area waiters who were grumpily moonlighting to eke out that minimum wage. The atmosphere was so festive it was like a mega party was going on, to which we somehow managed to finagle an invitation. We felt very self conscious and half-expected someone to discover that we didn’t belong in there and throw us out.
The drinks were pricey, of course. So, we had to nurse one single margarita for hours and hours and put on our best faces when the waiter came back for the thirteenth time asking us if we needed our next drink. There was food, food and more free food in the bar, which was why we were there in the first place. All kinds of dips, salsas and cheesy goo to go with a seemingly bottomless basket of chips.
On one of our subsequent trips, we found out that on certain days of the week, until the Cinderella hour, they sold their margaritas for a mere 99 cents, (Still a substantial sum, given our abject poverty) which made it all affordable. We soon had our second margarita, and then a third, in the same night. We even experimented with all sorts of margaritas - strawberry, gold and blue - you name it - margaritas on the rock, with crushed ice, with salt, and margaritas made out of god's own manna.
We would wistfully look at the restaurant section of the house, watching all those well-dressed gentry being hustled to their table by a goddess-like usher, almost like kindergartners being led by their teacher. Not that we could not have afforded an occasional Chi-Chi’s meal. But it was just that our restaurant dollars were reserved for stuffing our faces in the Indian buffet restaurants.
One day, just some day, I too will get to eat in a Chi-Chi’s, I resolved.
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That 'some day' came very soon, right after I moved to Pittsburgh.
Me and a bunch of ‘Fresh off the Boat’ desis were hanging around the Parkway Center Mall, when we noticed a Chi-Chi’s restaurant situated at the perimeter of the Mall, almost like an afterthought. On an impulse, we made a beeline for it, although none of the other guys had ever been inside a Chi-Chi’s before, obviously. A minor financial note here - Carnegie Mellon University paid their Graduate students better than the Ohio State those days and so, money wasn't a major hassle.
"Oh, you will like it." I hyped it. "I have never been to the restaurant section myself. Been only to the bar."
We opened the massive fortress-like doors. Inside, the atmosphere was just as cheerful and festive as in its Columbus counterpart. A bevy of hostesses wearing low, low, low-cut blouses confronted us and seductively asked us if we could spend the rest of our lives with them, er, I mean said their usual "Welcome to Chi-Chi’s."
My friends were suitably impressed by the place, by our reception. This was one of those experiences they would not wait to tell their long distance friends about.
'This way, please.' the shepherd among the waitress gang, led us into the restaurant, hiding her spacious bosom behind a thick stack of Menu booklets. Suddenly a whole new world came into existence in front of us. There were elegant tables, chandeliers, pretty looking things hanging on the walls for no reason, fake plants, sizzle of fajitas, genteel, unimposing conversation noise all around etc. etc. Is this how it was supposed to look? I savored every bit of what I saw. It was a major Rite of Passage for all of us - from the ignoble days of coupon clipping at the campus McDonalds and the shameless binge eating at the desi restaurants. I had finally arrived - to act like a gentleman and eat like a gastronome.
Once we sat down, my friends first opted for that Official Desi Drink - Water Without Ice, for they were still nervous. I put my foot down and made it a margarita for everyone. We then cracked open the menu and studied it like a research paper.
"Have you all decided what you want?" the angel appeared after five minutes and asked us.
"Yes, I will go for a Tampico."
"I too will go for it. I am a vegetarian. and this is the only veggie dish they have."
"Make it three, please."
"Copy cats! I was going to go for it first. I will have a Tampico too." - Me.
"So, lets see, all of you want Tampico, is that right?" the surprised waitress asked, just to make sure.
Pitchers of margaritas were imbibed. Tampicos came and got devoured. Great conversation occurred. It was a consummate dining experience and finally I got to enjoy it. At the end, we even left a generous tip and Manohar Rao, being the mathematics whiz kid, quickly figured in his head how much each of us owed. Once the bill was settled, we staggered out of the place in a state of supreme bliss.
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We desis in the Carnegie Mellon area, Pittsburgh, existed those days like one big monolith. A virtual joint family. Every desi did exactly what every other desi did. We all patronized Salim’s pita bread, had the same design on our Corelle plates and shaved off our sorry mustaches the same eventful week in spring. – and we began to flock to Chi-Chi’s like there was no tomorrow..
Chi-Chi’s was where Anurag ‘treated’ us for his summer internship and brought a closure to the whole issue. This was where Abhishek Bacchan (not his real name) first noticed how cute Aishwarya Rai (again, not the real name) looked and proceeded to romance her and marry her eventually. This was where Arti Gupta’s brother who came from out of town met with R. S. Srinivas’s friend, who had also come from out of town and discovered that their respective (desi) advisers were blood brothers.
What would start out as a romantic evening by a desi couple would evolve into a major social event, with the Squirrel Hill gang deciding to show up as well. We broke all kinds of records for the number of people in our party. When the waitress (who would be dressed like a bridesmaid in a society wedding) took our orders, we would go ‘tampico, tampico’ like a jury handing out its verdict. We consumed so many tampicos like they were going out of fashion. And finally, at the end of each session, Manohar Rao would use his abacus brains to crunch the numbers to the second decimal point and settled accounts then and there..
Oh, yes, someone even gave our party’s name as ‘Janata’ just to hear the ‘Janata Party, your table for ten is ready’ go up on the Public Address system
One day, someone discovered that the Chi-Chi’s performed a near-tribal ritual on your birthday – with a bunch of waiters and waitresses clapping their hands and singing an off-Spanish birthday ditty, embarrassing the hell out of even the most thick-skinned, hard-assed desi student. There was even a free, albeit cheap, cake to boot. And since most new students had just bought their first expensive cameras, this was an ideal occasion to break them in, Soon everybody’s calendar was recalibrated to include everyone else’s birthdays.
Such fun!!! Those were the days, my friend. Each of our lives was weaved together with everyone else's, like a large multi-colored quilt. The desi Golden age in Pittsburgh!!!!
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Like a lot of things in life, even Chi-Chi’s got to be a bit stale with the passing of time. There were newer, snazzier restaurants cropping up all around us. In fact, Satish Dharmaraj discovered an ‘authentic’ Mexican restaurant, about two tunnels and five Burroughs away, where they made you wait for two hours for a table, as if that was a hallmark of authenticity. Just as Chi-Chi’s was beginning to fade away entirely from the Pittsburgh desi radar screen, an unusual turn of events gave it a second wind.
That turn of events had to do with our old, clunkers of a car that many of us had bought the previous summer in one major buying spree, They all had to undergo a draconian State Vehicle Inspection for them to be registered for another year and our cars were flunking the inspection left and right, Either we forked out hundreds of dollars and got our cars fixed or forever kept them off the road. Which was when the desi ingenuity took the center stage and Lalit discovered an unsung car mechanic – a Greek immigrant called Guz – operating out of a dirty, concealed garage on a hillside, He had a seemingly infinite inventory of junkyard parts. Once he stuck the right metal thing in, it would breathe new life into our cars and make them pass the State Inspection. And what’s more, he was far and out cheaper than Midas and Muffler King.
The only problem with Guz was that his garage was in such a godforsaken place that only Lalit knew how to get there. This was the pre-cell phone days, folks and all our desi heuristics did not help us. Fortunately, the nearest major landmark was of course, the Chi-Chi’s – which every one of us could navigate to with our eyes closed. Our logistics became very simple - carloads of desis drive their beat up cars, converge on the Chi-Chi’s and after lunch, go in a convoy behind Lalit to Guz’s garage.
My final Chi-Chi’s visit was actually a farewell party to me and Manohar Rao, organized by the rest of the gang. For one last time, we ordered our margarita on the rocks and for one last time we filled the atmosphere with the Gregorian Chants of ‘tampico, tampico, tampico’. And for one last time, Manohar Rao figured out the per-capita dollar damage and helped with real-time settling of accounts, although both he and I were excused from payment, since it was our sendoff ‘treat’.
I then moved to the Denver area. Even though I made good faith effort, I could not find a Chi-Chi’s in and around Denver, I was told that they did not operate there. Slowly and slowly, Chi-Chi’s began to evaporate out of my system..
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2003. “Over four hundred people were infected with Hepatitis A virus in the Pittsburgh area and three died of it, after eating in the Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant” -
Oh, my god!!! The news item shocked me to no end. Unbelievable!!! Heck, it could have been us desis!!! How many zillion times have we eaten there!!! I began to wallow in a huge dose of nostalgia. My thoughts drifted aimlessly from episode to episode of my Pittsburgh days, from one Pittsburgh friend to another. All the good times, some bad times and a lot of time-pass times. On an impulse, I reached for the phone and dialed up one of the guys, who had since moved back to India. We hadn’t spoken in over five years now. Not even email exchanges for over a year now.
He was surprised out of his wits to get my phone call. After an exuberant exchange of initial pleasantries, I told him about the Chi-Chi’s news and he 'Aw shuck'-ed the loss of lives.
"It wasn't our Chi-Chi’s" I informed him. "I believe this one is in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh"
We moved away from Chi-Chi’s and kept rambling on. Suddenly we realized that our conversation wasn’t going anywhere. There was a hint of embarrassment, unease and sheer boredom. What the hell was happening?
We made a detour and started talking about our common friends.
“Wonder what Manohar must be doing now.”
“Haven’t heard from him in a while. He must be calculating the Federal Budget Deficit for the fiscal year 2002 in his mind.”
There was a labored laugh at the other end. The more we kept talking, the more we felt strange. It wasn’t like old times. What in the world was going on? We came back to Chi-Chi’s.
“We must have been the largest consumers of tampico.”
He agreed meekly. We perfunctorily discussed each other’s jobs, almost hoping that the other person would say a bye and hang up. There was a pregnant pause, which was threatening to become terminal. Can this be the same guy with whom I used to have long conversations till the wee hours of the morning?.
It was then time to play the end game - meandering from silly topic to silly topic and losing our grip on the conversation completely. He tried to pump up the enthusiasm level by asking a few anthropological questions about desis and India Association in Denver.
Finally we came back to Chi-Chi’s.
“How could something in the stratosphere of fine eating go through such a mess?” he asked philosophically.
Again there was a suspenseful pause. Can this be the same person who shared my life in Pittsburgh?.
“When you come to India, be sure to visit me” he implored me.
Then we said our byes and hung up, just like that. I felt a huge sense of disappointment, I am sure he too was not too thrilled to have gone through an interruptive, semi-meaningless phone call. We both hurriedly retreated into our respective bubbles - populated by our today's friends, today's family and today's worries. Once upon a time we remembered and celebrated each other's birthdays. Now we don't even phone each other to announce births, deaths and marriages. I knew - and I am sure he too knew - that we wouldn't call each other up for another five years - at least. The phone call was such an anti-climax.
My thinking about my Pittsburgh days became more and more cloudy. I couldn't even begin to guess how many zigzags my life had taken since those days. Nostalgia is good for the soul and the heart, But heck, we have moved on. I will live another week and at the end of it, I will have forgotten the Chi-Chi’s entirely.
Tampico, tampico, tampico.
The round robin pronouncement coming from ten desis sitting around a table, is still ringing in my ears.
God! It seems like it was only yesterday. It also seems like it was a million years ago. All I know is a lot of innocence has been lost between then and now.
2004 Chi-Chi’s shuts all units; Outback buys site rights: Mexican chain, in Chapter 11, retains brand, operations, recipes, trade secrets
Copyrighted by Mahadevan Ramesh