Remember when we thought Chi Chi’s was the real deal & Mexican food seemed new and exciting? (1980s)

chi chis retro mexican food

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Before Chipotle, there was Chi Chi’s Mexican food

Growing up in the Midwest in any decade earlier than the 80s meant — very likely — that one’s entire exposure to Mexican food was the bland tacos your mom made with something like Ortega hard taco shells (and the taco filling may or may not have been spiced).

Perhaps she got creative in the kitchen with a retro sort-of Mexican food recipe — carefully clipped from that month’s issue of Good Housekeeping. (We have a bunch of these gems below!)

Maybe you also got to have burritos courtesy of the freezer case, but my mom didn’t buy those. And salsa? Well, it wasn’t fresh — just jarred.

Worse still, my only acquaintance with guacamole growing up was the nasty canned stuff (!) you could buy in the chips aisle.

I never even experienced a fresh avocado and real guacamole until I was a legal adult — a fact which is astounding to me, looking back. It’s a staple ingredient these days!

“A celebration of food!”

Boy, has our experience with this culinary genre changed significantly since the 70s, especially for those of us Midwesterners who moved to the desert southwest at some point in our lives. 

Before there was Chipotle and Chevy’s, Baja Fresh and Qdoba, I’m pretty sure it was Chi-Chi’s that changed the Mexican food game for me in the 80s.  Remember Chi-Chi’s Mexican-ish food??

Watching that old commercial, is it any surprise to hear this company was started by non-Mexicans in… Minnesota? 

Nevertheless, we have Chi Chi’s to thank for at least trying to expand our culinary horizons.

Sure, it was a large chain with a negligibly Mexican food menu, but at the time, it was a gigantic leap forward towards authenticity — as well as our first experience with taking nearly our entire dinner home in a box because we ate too many chips and salsa. Oops.

And at least the guacamole was made fresh.  /BB

This magazine feature wanted to keep co-eds from embarrassing themselves when ordering off the Chi Chi’s menu…

Make it Mexican: How to say it (1982)

Arroz (ah-RROS): Rice

Burrito (boo-RREE-toh): Wheat-flour tortilla wrapped around a filling

Chile (CHEE-leh): Chili, hot pepper

Chimichanga (chee-mee-CHAN-ga): Deep-fried burrito

Enchilada (ehn-chee-LAH-thah): Tortilla dipped in chili sauce and filled with cheese or meat

Salsa (SAHL-sah): Sauce served with Mexican dishes

Sopaipillas (soh-pa-PEE-yas): Deep-fried pastry puffs

Tortilla (tohr-TEE-yah): Thin, unleavened pancake of ground, dried cornmeal

Chi Chi's Mexican Food. Make it Mexican - retro recipes from 1982 (2)

Try some of these recipes to experience what Mexican food in the US tasted like before we knew how Mexican really tasted


Enchiladas Acapulco made with Mexican Velveeta cheese (1986)

Velveeta Mexican Process Cheese Spread uses jalapeno peppers and a special blending of natural cheeses for a taste that makes it easy to turn your meal into a real fiesta.

There’s no single cheese like Mexican Velveeta. 

Enchiladas made with Mexican Velveeta cheese (1986)


Toss a Fiesta! Kraft Taco salad dressings (1984)

Imagine chunky tomato, tangy onion, mild green chile pepper and just a touch of spice…all blended with fresh sour cream for a mild but distinctive south-of-the-border taste.

That’s new Taco Dressing from KRAFT. Or, for an even lighter Mexican touch, try our new KRAFT Taco Reduced Calorie Dressing! So, why not add a little spice to your salad … tonight!

Toss a Fiesta Kraft Taco salad dressings (1984)


Siesta summer salad: Retro taco-style recipe (1985)

Siesta summer salad - Retro taco dressing recipe (1985)


Rosarita guacamole recipe (c1980s)

Rosarita y Avocado. Ole! Tonight, slip quietly across the border without ever leaving home. With tacos, Rosarita Refried Beans and California Avocados.

Start things going with cool, creamy California Avocado guacamole dip and tortilla chips. For easy tacos, use Rosarita Taco Shells. They’re pre-shaped to hold your favorite meat filling. Add shredded cheese and lettuce, and drizzle with Rosarita Taco Sauce. Then top your taco off with some lively guacamole, and serve with heated Rosarita Refried Beans under crescents of tender, nutlike California Avocado.

There’s no need to learn Spanish. Everybody knows what “Mmm…” means.

Rosarita guacamole recipe (c1980s)


Retro American Mexican food – Lawry’s Fiesta Oliva recipe (1983)

Taste the flavors of a Mexican fiesta with quality products from Lawry’s and ripe olives from California. 

Retro American Mexican food - Lawry's Fiesta Oliva recipe (1983)


Retro Bisquick Prizewinning Burrito Bake recipe (1986)

ALSO SEE: The Impossible Pie recipe book: 12 easy dinner recipes & desserts from 1982

Retro Bisquick Prizewinning Burrito Bake recipe (1986)


Beefy Mexican lasagna recipe (1986)

Beefy Mexican lasagna recipe (1986)


A Mexican Fiesta! (1976)

A Mexican dinner might begin with icy margaritas, accompanied by deep-fried chiles rellenos and a hot dip.

Next, a cold, creamy avocado soup with tortillas and tomato-and-pepper relish on the side. After that, beef enchiladas — tortillas rolled around a meat filling, blanketed with tomato sauce and baked.

A selection of several main courses is not unusual at gourmet-club feasts. Above, escabeche de pescado — cold pickled fish — garnished with orange peel and pepper strips.

Below left, a Mexican classic: turkey mole (the rich sauce is made with unsweetened chocolate and flavored with cinnamon and cumin); with it, green rice. For dessert, almond torte, coconut “apples” and fruit.

Vintage Mexican food, 1970s-style (2)

Vintage Mexican food, 1970s-style (1) 

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Going to Chi-Chi’s in the 80s and 90s was a big deal; forget trying to get in to the one in our area on a Friday or Saturday night unless you were prepared for a long wait! And there was a good reason why — their food was amazing, simply put. I for one loved their chimichangas. Sadly, Chi-Chi’s couldn’t compete with the more authentic Mexican restaurants that are now popular, and in the US they never recovered from a hepatitis outbreak in the early 2000s linked to their green onions. From what I understand they’re still popular in Europe.

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