Craving Korean Mexican burritos and chimichangas filled with half a pound of tender, marinated meat? Head to Cha Cha Chili. The restaurant on Valley Boulevard and 7th Street, which opened in Alhambra in May, serves tacos, burritos, sliders, chimichangas, and quesadillas with a Korean twist, including a choice of chicken, beef bulgogi, spicy pork, short rib (kalbi), or tofu.
Owner Gavin Cha purchased in 2009 one of the first brick-and-mortar restaurants serving Korean tacos after the popularity of Kogi BBQ taco trucks. Cha hesitated to take on the fusion, thinking it was a fad. But after improving the menu, changing the name from Red Hot Kitchen to Cha Cha Chili, and noticing the number of Alhambra High School students that frequented the east Los Angeles location, he decided to expand his brand of fried fusion to the Alhambra community.
Cha, who has worked at Japanese, Korean, and American French restaurants, chatted with Alhambra Source about his experience with Alhambra City Hall, Yelp reviews, and why Cha Cha Chili stands out.
What is it like opening a restaurant in Alhambra?
Very good and bad. The city of Alhambra is pretty nice. The city’s a little bit small, so working with the building department and everything has been pretty good.
Some of the bureaucracy that goes along with it is a little bit much. The city’s been pushing me to do a grand opening, but it’s not really a priority for me. I don’t even believe in celebrating birthdays. I’m not really one for real formal things.
Do you live in Alhambra?
I’ll probably have to move here. I’m doing 14-16 hour days every day. It’s kind of rough since I live in North Orange County. I jump back and forth a little bit between this and the original location. I want to make sure everything’s okay here. Mommy and Daddy are helping out at the first location right now.
What differentiates Cha Cha Chili from similar places?
With Korean food, normally you have to sit down and spend a lot of money. With our food, you sit down, don’t spend all that much, and you can relax with a beer. You’ll still have the Korean barbecue flavors.
One of the tag lines that I use for the restaurant is “real honest food.” It takes a while for the food to come out, which is kind of annoying for a lot of people. We make it to order and we make practically every sauce and marinade from scratch. I would do everything from scratch if I could.
Where do you source your ingredients?
I shop around and make sure I get the best deals. I really don’t care so much about low fat and healthy. For me, it’s just about sourcing the best ingredients at competitive prices. I pass along all the savings to customers. We should be charging about $14 or $15 a plate for our food. We should make it more sit down with white tablecloths, but I don’t do that because I just want it to be a quick experience.
What have you learned as a restaurant owner?
For me, the restaurant business is about three different elements: the food, the service, and the atmosphere. If you have all three, then you have a great experience and it’s a place you really like. If not, it just becomes mediocre.
I joined up with Red Hot Kitchen initially only because I believed in the food. I think I’m in it for the long haul. Before, I was working real estate. I barely worked any hours, but I made a lot of money. That wasn’t really for me. I just want to impact more people doing whatever I do. You make customers happy. If you do a good job, you’re also helping out the employees as well. It’s a good thing for everyone involved.
How do you explain Cha Cha Chili's inconsistent Yelp reviews?
Some of it, I would admit, is our mistakes. We’re still going through training. That’s why I’m spending so much time here. Some people’s expectations aren’t very realistic. Our food’s not really overpriced. Everything’s under $10. Some of the reviews say the portions are skimpy. I really wonder what they’re eating in general. Take our chimichanga. It’s fairly rare that you’ll finish it off in one sitting. It’s usually shared between two people.
People may be confused because we put a lot of veggies in the burritos. Although Korean food is meat heavy, it’s vegetable heavy too. We put a lot of veggies on top with the slaw that covers a lot of the meat that’s on the bottom. You can try it for yourself and see if we’re skimping. Normally you don’t put half a pound of meat in a burrito or chimichanga. The tacos are generously portioned too.
If the cooks are making it right, and people say that’s not good, I have nothing to say to them. If people think that, they’re just people on Yelp. I understand some people will not like the food. That goes with anything else. That’s just the business. It’s not like we’re serving a bad product. You can taste it for yourself and come up with your own opinion.
Cha Cha Chili is located at 640 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, Calif., 91803 (former site of Jazz Cat Cafe). It’s open Monday – Sunday, 11:00am – 11:00pm. Connect with Cha Cha Chili via Facebook.
Interview was edited and condensed.