The smell of well-seasoned meat, toppings and tortillas filled the air at Cha Chis Mexican Grill just after 11 a.m. Friday.
That’s the restaurant’s normal opening time, but this Friday was special.
Cha Chis closed a year ago almost to the day, after an early-morning fire on Feb. 6, 2015 burned much of the Mason Jar bar next door, leaving the restaurant and its upstairs apartments with extensive smoke and water damage.
And after that year of rebuilding, Cha Chis is back in business.
Owners Natalia Istrati and Roman Freyre, along with several other employees, bustled between the kitchen and serving line Friday as they prepared for the coming rush of eager customers.
The road to reopening was a long one for the couple. After the fire, water damage quickly became mold damage, and even the electrical wiring had to be replaced.
“Everything was stripped down to the brick, and everything was redone again,” Istrati said.
That means the restaurant, which the couple opened in December 2011, isn’t the old Jimmy John’s any more—rather, it has a look of its own.
“It’s Cha Chis now,” Istrati said with a quick grin as she hurried to put the finishing touches on the chalkboard menu.
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Then their first customer, Dave Sanders, arrived.
“We’re not ready yet but we’ll get there,” Istrati called as she headed for the kitchen.
Sanders said he was a big fan of Cha Chis, and he’s been waiting anxiously for the reopening.
“Carnitas burrito—that’s my go-to,” he said.
He wasn’t alone in the restaurant for long. Soon a line of more than 20 loyal customers stretched to the door, some cheering and pumping their fists with excitement as they stepped inside.
“Wow, this is nice, very nice,” said Lisa Rae Skalicky, who walked to the restaurant with several of her coworkers from Merchants Bank.
Skalicky took in the restaurant’s snappy new decorations, including reclaimed wood paneling, bright green, blue, and silver painted stripes swooping along the walls, and shiny new serving equipment.
“Tenemos todo, no?” called Istrati from the serving line.
She looked out at the growing line of customers.
“Okay, I’ll give it a try!” she said. She smiled at Sanders over the sneeze guard.
“Burrito,” Sanders said. “Looks good.”
“Thanks, yeah, lots of work,” Istrati replied as she placed a tortilla in the warmer.
It was clear, as Istrati neatly rolled the first burrito into a bulging foil wrapper, that she hadn’t lost her touch after a year.
“It’s like riding a bike,” she said.
Sanders took his burrito, along with fresh chips and salsa, to go.
Skalicky, right behind him in line, sat down at a brightly-colored table with her nachos, which were piled high with toppings. She said nachos are her favorite thing to get at Cha Chis, but she likes the whole menu.
“They’re good, good people,” she said of Istrati and Freyre. “We’ve been missing them tremendously.”