In 2012, Cesar Ochoa thought he was finished with owning restaurants. He sold Las Palapas, a Mexican cafe in Livonia, to his brother, got married, and had children.
But this summer, he opened Chapala Mexican Restaurant and Bar on N. Main, replacing the three-year-old Agave Tequila Bar and an adjoining space that was used for a catering operation.
Ochoa says he was talked into the venture by an old friend, Ray Kouza. Kouza’s family owns much of the block between Ann and Catherine, including the Heidelberg restaurant to the north; Chapala; cigar bar Siris to the south; and the Main Party Shoppe at Ann.
“I told him I have a love-hate relationship with him now,” Ochoa laughs. “I love what I’m doing,” he says, but he’s also discovered just how difficult it is to open a new restaurant during a pandemic.
Finding enough front of house staff has been a particular challenge. Ochoa says he’s been dividing his time between managing the restaurant and doing chores like washing dishes and busing tables.
However, seven cooks who worked in his Livonia restaurant have now joined him in Ann Arbor, where he can seat seventy-five people, inside and on the sidewalk, while maintaining social distancing.
Ochoa grew up in Mexico, and says he’s excited to serve “what Mexicans eat when they go out.” He says he focused on keeping prices reasonable, because he thinks many downtown restaurants are “way too expensive and overpriced, way too formal, way too stuffy. The average person going out doesn’t feel comfortable,” he says. “Who wants to spend a couple hundred dollars every time you go out for a meal?”
With a nod to coastal Mexico, Ochoa is placing a focus on seafood. His signature dish, empapelado marino, at $19, is a mix of shrimp, scallops, and a filet of tilapia with sauteed vegetables, served inside half a pineapple.
The menu also includes steak, chicken, and vegetarian dishes, as well as familiar Mexican favorites such as tacos, enchiladas, and burritos.
Already, tables out front have been filling up with daytime and evening diners under floodlit blue walls and a colorful sign. “It’s a very relaxed vibe,” Ochoa says. “We want people to have a good time.”
Chapala Mexican Restaurant and Bar, 211 N. Main. (734) 996-1456. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. getchapala.com