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The Iraolas' Labor of Love

They worked for a year to get their downtown store ready.

by Sabine Bickford

From the October, 2017 issue

They worked for a year to get their downtown store ready.

"This is a wonderful location," says Adrian Iraola outside his new Chela's Mexican restaurant on S. Fifth Ave. "The house has a lot of charisma and charm," he says of the small cinder-block and stucco building, long home to Jerusalem Garden. "It's a wonderful place."

Adrian and his wife, Lori, have worked for the last year on renovating the building to match their vision of an inviting spot for authentic Mexican street food. Updates include a new dark orange-red paint job, baskets of flowers on the outside wall, and wood-pallet patio furniture, painted black with bright blue cushions.

The Iraolas built all the patio furniture themselves and admit the design was intended in part to keep it from "wandering off," as Lori puts it. "We had a banner from the University of Michigan and a flag, and they got stolen already," says Adrian. "We're learning." They've also renovated the interior, raising the low ceiling in the front room and putting in a new kitchen.

Decorations include flowers hand painted by Adrian, some Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera prints, and pictures of the Iraolas' three children, taken in Mexico. Their system for marking tables uses loteria cards: a set of stylized images used for a traditional Mexican game similar to bingo.

So far the menu is the same as at their original Maple Rd. restaurant, including tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and tamales. But the new space has a fryer, and the Iraolas are working on adding dishes that make use of it. Adrian is particularly excited about making flautas, tightly rolled and fried tortillas, which he made for Lori on their very first date.

They're also working on getting a food cart outside the restaurant. "We'd love to hit that 2-3 a.m. closing with the taco cart," Lori explains. "It's not just people getting out of bars and work. We're looking for the students. I'm sure their parents

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would love to know that they were studying really hard on Friday and then happened to come to Chela's afterwards," she says with the wry laugh of a mother with three children currently in college.

The couple had planned to open by Cinco de Mayo, but "we realized that it needed a lot more work than what we initially estimated," says Adrian, and "that led to delays and more delays."

The first Chela's, named after Adrian's mother, opened in 2012 in the small strip center at Maple and Liberty. Adrian had been working on the Liberty Lane underground garage as a project manager for the Downtown Development Authority, and as it wound to a close Lori saw the opportunity to pursue something new.

Her husband had always "wanted to find real Mexican food, and we weren't finding the style of Mexican food that he was looking for," she recalls. "I'd make tacos at home, and he'd say, 'Can you imagine if we had a restaurant? We'd have real tacos, not cheese or lettuce, but onion and cilantro and lime like they have at home!'"

Home for Adrian is Mexico City. His father owned parking lots and taco stands there, so Adrian grew up eating the food he would later re-create. He explains that the food in Mexico City mirrors the city itself, a cosmopolitan center influenced by Mexico's many different regions. "We want to export the heart of the city," he says.

When Lori, whose grandmother was once chef at the Old German, first suggested the restaurant, Adrian wasn't sure. She says she kept pushing: "I'd been listening to it for twenty-two years. When are we going to do this?" Eventually she wrote up a business plan and submitted it to him.

"We thought it was gonna be a small little mom-and-pop place with maybe one person in the front and one in the back," she recalls. "Then we found out our first weekend that we were going to be very busy. We kept selling out of food, and the learning curve was quick. We all of a sudden realized that we were cooking food that people were thrilled to pay for."

After a brief 2014 try for a second location off Stone School Rd. that didn't work out (it's now the Grow Show), they're hoping for a repeat of that initial success. "Students are finding us already!" says Adrian. Plus, they've already gotten a secret admirer. "Somebody," Adrian tells us, "has been leaving stones that say 'you're awesome,' 'welcome,' 'we love you.'"

Chela's Restaurant & Taqueria, 307 S. Fifth, 780-7078. Sun.-Thurs. 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.     (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2017.]


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