Hialeah classic Chico’s keep humming despite the pandemic

Luis Castaño, Chico’s Restaurant owner and cook, at the West Hialeah eatery on Sept. 19. (Andres Arias/SFMN)

Tables and counter stools are placed well in excess of six feet apart at Hialeah’s Chico’s Restaurant. The expressions of its staff are covered by face masks, menus are secured beneath table glass. They are all reminders of the health crisis that have shaken Florida’s sixth-largest city to its core.

But the place was humming along at midday on a recent Saturday largely due to the efforts of Chico’s owner and cook Luis “Luisito” Castaño.  

The Havana-born restaurateur, 71, walked briskly from the kitchen to the dining room, forcing wait staff to catch up. He chatted with customers. Sometimes, he squeezes in a meal between 5 a.m. and his 3 p.m. departure. His grease-laden handshake and lightly stained grey heather shirt embody his role as a well-traveled anchor for the establishment.

Castaño, who came to the United States in October 1967 and studied culinary arts at Lindsey Hopkins Technical College, has worked at Chico’s since its inception in 1980.  

“We had four partners running the business when we started out here. Now, it’s just two of us, Jesus and I,” he said, referring to fellow owner Jesus Ovidez.  

Things have been difficult, he said, but the business will survive.

“We are getting through this, I must say, and admittedly right now things are good for the business,” Castaño said.  “We’ve got decades of experience and a dedicated clientele. Getting back to 24-hour service recently has meant we’re seeing steady business morning, noon and night.”

On the subject of the COVID safety regulations imposed by Miami-Dade County, Castaño stresses Chico’s dedication to hygiene and observing physical-distancing regulations.

A close friend of Castaño’s and a loyal patron for 32 years who once sold the restaurant cleaning products, Pedro Falcón said he’s seen the hard work the staff has done to keep things clean.  

“A month or two back, I peeked inside and was beyond surprised,” Falcón said. “Everybody working there got involved, sweeping aside all of the tables and chairs and using all manner of cleaning solutions on everything from the ceiling to the walls and the floors. It must have been expensive, but they got it done. ‘Luisito’ guided all of this, might I add.”  

Castaño thinks some of the county’s measures were taken too far. “To be quite honest with you, I do think the restaurants were strained more than was necessary in trying to adapt to this new normal, and certain measures were just plain exaggerated.”

He has had to reduce his offerings. “Naturally, we cut our menu roughly in half in response to having fewer employees and, of course, fewer customers,” Castaño said. “It was a necessary compromise, but things are trending up and staffing and our variety of dishes is up compared to before.

Waitress Oneida Vega-Ortega said she holds her boss in high regard.  “Luisito has done a truly impressive job running the ship here. We were hit remarkably hard by the pandemic, but we made it through and that’s something to be thankful for.”

Having closed its doors only twice in 40 years in the face of hurricane threats, Chico’s ventanita and gently refurbished interior are layered with a nostalgic Cuban motif that includes from murals, ad posters and vinyl records.  The venue has played host to everything from family dinners and quinceañeras to campaign rallies.     

Luisito said he is proud to have played a part in the wide appeal of Chico’s and its legacy. “We had President George H.W. Bush come in once, along with other local political figures and artists, though things have died down in recent years.  It’s something I’m glad to be able to preserve today.” 

Andres Arias, born and raised in Miami, is currently majoring in journalism and pursuing a film studies certificate.  He is interested in pop culture and consumer technology and aspires to contribute to the body of public opinion as a critic.