In the Kitchen: The Chilangos Familia Takes a Traditional Approach

The story behind an authentic Mexican gem on Manton Avenue

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Setting foot inside Chilangos’ unassuming front door – which is covered by thick curtains – you’re met with the rich smell of spices from homemade sauces, an ambiance rivaling the speakeasy scene, and an authentic Mexican vintage feel. Upon rolling through the drapery, you’ll be greeted by a member of the familia.

Next year marks 22 years of business for Chilangos, a restaurant with humble beginnings as a brick and mortar that opened on the intersection of Manton and Atwells avenues, where Olneyville meets Mount Pleasant – though this isn’t where the story of Chilangos begins.

In the late ‘90s, Juan Carlos Fierros opened a food truck roaming Fox Point on summer nights, with a route hugging the water and stopping at his favorite soccer fields by Gano Street and India Point Park. A simple menu – dubbed “Triple T” because it featured tacos, tortas, and tamales – mirrored the Mexican street food he knew and loved growing up. At a time before social media was a thing, Fierros gained a serious base of dedicated followers. 

Fierros developed his menu based on the cuisine of Mexico City, he explains, “just for the fact that it was a melting pot of all 32 states in Mexico.” The name “Chilango” – which has several meanings, including “wanderer” or someone from Mexico City – was bequeathed upon Fierros by the fanbase who would crowd around the truck. When they asked him where he was from, he told them Jalisco and Ixtlan de los Hervores, but after experiencing his cooking they would say, “No, no… you are a Chilango.”

The name stuck when Fierros opened up shop on Manton Avenue.

Now, the Chilangos family includes Fierros and his sister Patricia heading the kitchen, nephews Max Mendoza as general manager and bartending whiz Jeff Mendoza, and “great uncle” Hector Racine, who is part of their adopted family, having been with the restaurant since its inception in 2001. Though pushing 80, Racine can often be found dancing around the restaurant while hosting, serving, and bussing tables – and dropping off samples of some of the finest liquid gold in town: Don Nacho Tequila.

Part of what makes Chilangos unique is the family’s own tequila brand, made from pure agave. The farmers and distillers behind the Don Nacho Tequila brand are based out of Jalisco, Mexico, and they’re close relatives of the Chilangos crew. Affectionately dubbed “Uncle Nacho” (and also “living legend”) by the crew, this tequila is their secret sauce. 

“Don Nacho is special because when it’s aging in its casks, classical music is played for over 24 hours at a time,” shares Fierros. “A kitchen secret is how we use some of the tequila for tenderizing the chicken on the menu.” Now the brand is distributed in the northeast and beyond with the reposado being awarded more than a few gold medals over the years.

Chilangos closes once a year so they can visit family in Mexico, but a big part of the trip is also food research to learn what dishes are currently singing on Mexican streets. The inspiration they bring back usually finds its way back to the Providence eatery.

The menu has seen changes over the last few decades, but a handful of original offerings from the “Triple T” school of thought remain, plus some vegetarian-friendly options. Their slogan, “Solo la forma en que es” or “Just the way it is,” serves as a nod to their commitment to authenticity. While lots of restaurants take traditional dishes to a fusion level to make some noise, the Chilangos familia believes in keeping things a bit quieter to showcase the way they started and the generations before them. 

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