It’s all about the chili.

When I was a kid, we didn’t go out to eat often. That’s partly because we lived in a small town that only opened a Subway and Sonic years after we moved away, and partly because there wasn’t a lot of extra money to go around.

But every once in a while, we’d go out for a special occasion. And more often than not, my family would go to Don Chilito’s, a little Mexican hole in the wall near my grandma and aunt’s houses (but about an hour away from our house).

My earliest memories of that restaurant aren’t about the food, but the décor. In the middle of the main seating area was a column that had three or four tables around it . . . and a huge fish tank on top!

Thinking back, I’m not quite sure why that fish tank was so exciting. But let me tell you, it was.

Later, after the restaurant had changed hands (but never names) once or twice, the fish tank disappeared and I became more interested in the food.

Ah, the food.

First, you should know that this cheap Mexican eatery serves their cheap Mexican food cafeteria style. You stand in line – sometimes all the way out to the double doors, where you can look at the bubble gum machine and wish you had a quarter – until you finally reach the counter. That’s when it’s time to pick up a tray and negotiate with your little brother: who’s going to get the paper napkins and who’s going to get the silverware?

Next, it’s time to order. My dad gets a taco salad. My brother gets a taco burger or tostada or nacho or something else that seems completely random to me. But my mom and me? We’re burrito fans. So we each get a Don’s burrito – beef and bean, chili and shredded cheese on top.

I don’t know why my mom decided that was her dish. But I’m pretty sure I decided it was mine simply because it was hers.

After getting your food, paying and filling up your cup with pop, it’s time to find a table. This is not nearly as exciting since the fish went away.

But before digging in, there’s one last thing you must do when eating at Don Chilito’s: get chips. Between the cash register and the bathrooms is the most glorious of Mexican restaurant finds: the chip bin. It’s a huge bin of tortilla chips, under lights, with two kinds of salsa that taste exactly the same. It’s chip and salsa heaven. [Insert singing angels here.]

And once you eat that burrito and all the chips, you might think the experience is over. But, no. There are still sopaipillas to be eaten. And they can be found . . . you guessed it . . . in the sopaipilla bin.

As I mentioned, my family didn’t have a lot of money for eating out. Plus, this slice of Mexican cuisine was located a solid hour from our house.

So we decided to make Don Chilito’s food at home.

I’ll keep this short: the sopaipillas were a disaster. But the burritos? After a couple tries, we mastered those suckers. Here’s what you do:

Take one large tortilla and spread refried beans in the middle. Then spoon taco meat on the beans and top with shredded lettuce. Roll it up, and cover in chili and shredded cheddar. Nuke it for a minute, and enjoy.

The key? The chili must come from a can. I’m sorry, I hate to say it, but it’s the truth. Don’t bother with your homemade, healthy, three-bean business. Just get the can, skim the grease off the top and pour it out. (Okay, to be honest, we heat ours on the stove first, but I wanted to make sure you get the picture.)

And that’s how you get cheap, greasy Mexican food at home.

Now, before you turn your nose up and assume that such a delicacy would not be good enough for your refined palate, I have to tell you that my family is not the only one who loves this food and this place. After all, despite the handful of owners over the years, Don Chilito’s has remained a staple in downtown Mission, Kansas.

And if you ask around, you’re sure to find more fans. I worked near the restaurant for a while, and several of my co-workers loved it. As did my friend that I met for lunch every couple of months. As do my cousins. Interestingly enough, even though our families both love this restaurant, I didn’t realize we had this in common until just a few years ago. Weird, right?

No, just the nature of the hole in the wall. After all, nobody brags about loving chili from a can.

What’s your favorite way to eat Mexican food? And in a handy coincidence, Rachel is making guacamole over at A Southern Fairytale. So head on over for her recipe and other Mouthwatering Monday tips!

19 Comments It’s all about the chili.

  1. ben and erin May 4, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    margarita’s chicken tacos, hands down. and even better, they’re bogo on mondays. mmmmmmmm….. i need to stop talking about them before my mouth starts watering!

  2. Lauren May 4, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Don Chilitos is delicious. I was a little wary of this place when I saw it but definitely delicious. James and I make tacos all the time at home because it’s easy. Of course we have gotten in to eating with chips instead of tortillas.
    Well now I want a good taco burger. YUM YUM!

  3. chelleybutton May 4, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    I love guacamole. :) And I just have to say… what a thorough description of your restaurant experience! One of the tasks I have my students do is tell about going to a restaurant, but I’m lucky if I get “you order food and the waitress brings it to you and then you pay” or something like that. ;) (Obviously you don’t need speech therapy, huh?;)

  4. carissab May 4, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    los corales. i don’t think i’m even spelling it right, but it’s downtown kc and when i met chris his family went once every couple of weeks. the burrito spread. you’ll love it. and the extremely salty, runny salsa. i crave it!

  5. HonorMommy May 4, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Umm…it doesn’t sound very sanitary…

  6. HonorMommy May 4, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    the bins I mean… :-)

  7. shopannies May 4, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    love mexican chili and I think you are right

  8. Rachel May 4, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    totally just licked my screen.


    I LOVE enchiladas.

  9. Amy Wright May 5, 2009 at 12:01 am

    Wow, I feel like I’ve been there! Next time I am in Mission, Kansas, I will absolutely make a stop. :)

    For my entire life, my family has vacationed in New Smyrna Beach. And, for my entire life, we have dined at Clancy’s Mexican Restaurant. It is unspectacular, as Mexican restaurants go – decorated with sombreros and parrots and paintings of gauchos and what not – but, inexplicably, it has a shamrock as part of its logo. Must have something to do with “Clancy.” Anyway, it is our favorite Mexican restaurant anywhere, because it signifies that we are on vacation, and everything is always more delicious on vacation.

  10. Julie@Momspective May 5, 2009 at 1:57 am

    Oooh, this post just made me SO HUNGRY!

  11. Porter May 5, 2009 at 3:37 am

    A whole bin for sopaipillas? I love those things!

  12. Mary @ Giving Up On Perfect May 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    See! Lauren likes DC, too! :)

    No, Chelley, I do not need speech therapy. Unless it’s for talking TOO much!

    HM – no, I imagine it’s not so sanitary to serve food up in bins. I just have to ignore that part!

    All – I got an email from my dad today saying that he and my mom want to take us out to dinner this weekend to . . . you guess it! . . . Don Chilitos!

  13. Brenda May 5, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Here in San Diego we have Rubio’s fish taco restaurants. Very yummy food, but it’s a little disturbing to see the fish swimming in the beautiful fish tank while your eating a fish taco. Not the same kind of fish, of course, but still…

    I love Mexican food! One of my favorite restaurants has a chile relleno stuffed with chicken. It’s topped with enchilada sauce and I order a side of guacamole to smear over the top. Add the warm, lightly salted chips and that right there is a perfect meal for me.

  14. Sarah May 7, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I love “hole-in-the-wall” Mexican Restaurants! They really do have the best food!

    I love to get fajitas! They are my all-time fave!

  15. AnnieBlogs May 19, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    I’m sooooo hungry now.

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