The Huntington News

Chilacates, with new Mission Hill location, is a business based on a love for food

Socrates+Abreu%2C+who+started+the+Jamaica+Plain+based+Chilacates+stands+next+to+his+sister-in-law+Kaurys+Lajara%2C+who+runs+one+of+the+store%27s+newest+branches+in+Mission+Hill.+
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Chilacates, with new Mission Hill location, is a business based on a love for food

Socrates Abreu, who started the Jamaica Plain based Chilacates stands next to his sister-in-law Kaurys Lajara, who runs one of the store's newest branches in Mission Hill.

Socrates Abreu, who started the Jamaica Plain based Chilacates stands next to his sister-in-law Kaurys Lajara, who runs one of the store's newest branches in Mission Hill.

Allie Kuo

Socrates Abreu, who started the Jamaica Plain based Chilacates stands next to his sister-in-law Kaurys Lajara, who runs one of the store's newest branches in Mission Hill.

Allie Kuo

Allie Kuo

Socrates Abreu, who started the Jamaica Plain based Chilacates stands next to his sister-in-law Kaurys Lajara, who runs one of the store's newest branches in Mission Hill.

Allie Kuo, news correspondent

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It all started with a hot dog. A Sonoran hot dog, to be exact, eaten during a 2008 trip to Mexico for his brother’s wedding.

“They wrap it in bacon, the bread is off the hook, they do the pico de gallo, the onions, the jalapenos, the cheese, everything,” said Socrates Abreu, describing the meal that inspired him to open Chilacates, a casual Mexican restaurant with five locations and counting around Boston including a new one in Mission Hill.

“I don’t know if you want to call that a dish, but it was wow,” Abreu said, taking a moment to pause for emphasis. “It hit us in the face. My wife was like, ‘You need to open a Mexican place.’ I was like, ‘I’m Dominican, I can’t open a Mexican place!’ And she’s like, ‘Why not?’”

Everything about Chilacates’ story is imbued with this sense of optimism and trust, whether it was trust in Abreu’s sister-in-law’s ability to create a menu that turned strangers into regulars, or trust that the business would thrive without pumping money into advertising efforts.

After securing a location on Amory Street in Jamaica Plain — or JP, as Abreu lovingly calls the place where he was born, raised and currently lives — it took 27 months for Chilacates to finally open its doors in July 2015. Those two years were filled with land battles, personal struggles and what Abreu described as the hardest moments of his life.

“But I always knew it could be worse,” Abreu said. “Because at the end of the day, I still had my family there, I still had my mother and a lot of people who believed in me.”

He glowed when speaking about his family, who are an essential part of all the Chilacates restaurants. There are family members working at each of the locations, and for those who may not be blood relatives, they are bound to become family. The owner of the Mission Hill location, Kaurys Lajara, is Abreu’s sister-in-law, and the manager, Perfecto Gonsaga, is her fiance. Lajara and Gonsaga were the ones who collaborated on Chilacates’ menu, finalizing it in two days.

Allie Kuo
A customer is served a plate of food at the Mission Hill Chilacates, which opened its doors to the public in February.

“Honestly, I just think it’s magical,” Abreu said about their rapid process. “When things are meant to be, they just come together. And to this day, it’s still the same menu. Just simple things that you would get in the streets.”

For Gonsaga, these flavors remind him of home and his own mother’s cooking — especially the chicken tinga enchiladas, his go-to order.

“I feel like when I eat the enchiladas, it’s like my mom cooked it. That was her special dish — when I was in Mexico, that’s what I eat,” Gonsaga said.

This familial connection, felt through a bite of spicy shredded chicken or corn tortilla smothered in cheese, is something that Abreu wants all of his customers to experience. He has fostered an environment that intertwines the power of love and food, because to him, food is deeply personal and intimate.

He thinks back to his childhood, growing up with a father who was not the type to show a lot of love. But when he did, it was through cooking a great meal for those he cared about.

“I always feel that when I’m giving people food and showing them that love it means the world to me,” Abreu said. “It’s the one thing you give to someone and they ingest it into their body.”

Love is in the way Abreu welcomes staff from one of the other locations who have stopped by to see him, the way he banters with his sister-in-law behind the counter in Spanish and how he sends a horchata into the kitchen to be heated up for a chilly customer. Sitting in the Mission Hill outpost of Chilacates, which opened on Feb. 10 with little fanfare or advertising, the 41-year-old appears right at home dressed in all black, digging into a bright red plate of shrimp enchiladas in front of him.

“I’ve never had shrimp in enchiladas before. This is also the first time I’ve talked to someone and eaten at the same time,” Abreu said.

For almost four years, Abreu worked at American Airlines — first in customer service, and then on the ramp — while simultaneously running Chilacates, but there came a point where he realized his energy could not be split between the two jobs. With a brief email penned in 30 seconds, Abreu resigned from American Airlines in February to give the restaurant his full attention.

“It was hard, but it’s not fair. You gotta be fair to your business, and you gotta be fair to the people you’re working for,” Abreu said. “So if I can’t give you the energy, like I tell everyone, if you can’t give me the love and energy I deserve, keep it moving.”

Things have been moving rapidly for Abreu ever since then, with the three newest Chilacates locations passing health inspections one after another and all opening within one week. The Chestnut Hill location opened Feb. 8, the Mission Hill location Feb. 10 and the South End location Feb. 16 — all even-numbered days, thanks to Abreu’s superstitious ways.  

“I try to replicate everything. I listen to the same thing I listened to the first time we opened, like I go through this whole ritual,” he said, describing how he fills the stores with the sounds of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

“I think a lot about where I’m coming from, where my parents and family comes from, and the things I’ve had to overcome — it keeps me level,” Abreu said as he choked up for a moment.

Even with the success of his restaurant, Abreu bristles at the thought of being called a chain and mentions the “ridiculous offers” he’s received from people seeking to franchise Chilacates — ones that involve millions of dollars he has no interest in.

“Anyone can push money at you,” Abreu said. “They just see the superficial, what’s on top, but they’re not carving through the layers. So if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna be because of the love we put in.”

Word of mouth plays an essential role in the growth of Chilacates, which was evident in returning customer and Berklee student Max Nudi. While finishing up the spicy chicken burrito in front of him, which he said is among his all-time favorites, Nudi gave a glowing review of the Mexican restaurant at the Mission Hill location.

“I already posted on social media the first time [I ate here],” Nudi said. “A bunch of people hit me up, so I’ve already been promoting it.”

Abreu is not dazed or distracted by the allure of creating a Mexican food empire, unless it’s on his own terms. This may be unfortunate news for those living outside the range of the five existing Chilacates locations, but Abreu is steadfast in his commitment to putting the food first and foremost.

The payoff is in the special moments that happen at his restaurants, when the act of eating becomes something more significant. Abreu said he has seen people meet at Chilacates who have gone on to get married, and he has had children eat their first bites of solid food at his restaurant.

He pulled up a photo from the Chilacates Instagram page of a smiling girl, now a toddler, with tortilla in hand and food smeared all over her face.

“They live in the South End. We opened in the South End, but they feel that it has so much magic on Amory Street that they continue to go to that one,” Abreu said of the little girl’s family. But looking around the Mission Hill shop, there are signs that the magic might not only be contained to that Jamaica Plain location.

There is extreme care and thought put into all the details, from the bold red wallpaper that can be found at all the locations to the little characters that adorn the napkin holders on the table.

“I always say the people eat with their eyes and their heart, before you even take a bite. So if you don’t get treated right, and the place doesn’t look right, the food doesn’t taste the same,” Abreu said.

With the help of local artist Deme5, Abreu created a logo that reflects the passion that goes into his restaurants. Above the row of red chilacate chiles, where the restaurant’s name comes from, is the phrase “hecho a mano con amor,” which means “handmade with love.”

“But we don’t just make it handmade,” Abreu said. “We make it handmade with love. Love has to be there.”

There are little things Abreu mentions that point to a larger, grander vision for his humble restaurant, but for now, he just wants to make sure that everyone who enters Chilacates feels like they’re getting a home-cooked meal.

“There’s this Spanish phrase — barriga llena, corazón contento. Full belly, happy heart,” Abreu said after taking the last bite of his shrimp enchiladas.

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