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Chela's Mexican Grill

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Flower teas and fresh fruit drinks aren't the thirst quenchers my friends and I typically choose to start our Friday night celebrations. However, the vast selection at Chela's Mexican Grill brought back memories of sipping fresh pineapple juice on the beach during a recent trip to Huatulco, so we decided to skip the cerveza and go for the agua frescas--we weren't disappointed.

Chela's is located on State Street, across from Big City Coffee, and from the road, it has a strip mall appearance. I tend to stay away from strip-mall restaurants. I'm not sure why--perhaps some horrifying experience as a child--or maybe I just prefer the more personalized look. Either way, I have to admit I was skeptical as we drove into the parking lot, but my worries immediately ceased when my friends and I entered the building.

It was obvious we had never been there before when we walked in and started reading the beer listed on a chalkboard only to hear a friendly voice from across the room yell, "Over here guys!" It turns out we were standing where they make the food, not where you order it. Behind the cooler filled with massive jars of tropical juices stood Rosie, who happily explained our options. They offer tacos, tortas, burritos and quesadillas, all priced between $3 and $5. You can also add chips and salsa or rice and beans to your meal, both for under $2. Or, venture out with a platter option that comes with your choice of meat served with rice, beans, salad and tortillas.

Their meats include carne asada (beef steak), carnitas (deep fried pork), pollo (chicken), pastor (marinated pork), chorizo (Mexican sausage), and for the authentic, non-gringo eaters: lengua (beef tongue) and barbacoa (barbecued meat). They also serve shrimp cocktail and shrimp tacos, and there's even a veggie option.

With so many choices, it was hard to decide what to feed our hungry bellies. One friend chose a pork burrito with chips and salsa. The other went for a marinated pork taco and a beef steak taco with rice and beans. I ordered a chicken torta, also with rice and beans.

After we finally made our food decisions, we began to ponder our drink options. The beer selection was typical of a Mexican restaurant, including Negro Modelo, Corona, Pacifica and Tecate. Rosie offered to let us sample the juices, which included cantaloupe, mango, strawberry, watermelon and pineapple. They also sell horchata (a rice and cinnamon drink), tamarindo (Tamarind fruit tea), and jamaica (hibiscus flower tea). We settled on the teas, which were a pleasing blend of sweet and sour.

While enjoying my drink and tasting the three different sauces that Chela's serves with chips, I noticed how spacious, clean and tidy the restaurant is. Maybe it dates back to my strip-mall issue, but I find cleanliness to be an essential factor in restaurant appeal, and this place was immaculate.

Our food arrived immediately, and we helped ourselves to each other's meals. All the portions were large and tasty. My sandwich came with chicken, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and more fixings on toasted Mexican bread. The marinated pork taco was a favorite and couldn't have had more flavorful juices. Although we all argued over what kind of beans we were eating, Rosie settled the debate by declaring they were Peruvian yellow beans. Our only criticism was with the salsa, which was surely fresh and homemade, but heavy on the tomatoes and lacking peppers and herbs.

We left satisfied and content. The prices were fair, the portions large, and most notably, the service was friendly. After discovering Chela's is a family business (Rosie and her husband own the restaurant, and named it after their daughter), we like it even more. We plan on returning, and I just may give strip malls a fair chance in the future.

--Gina Sinisi thinks "mall" is a four-letter word.

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