This hidden gem is really not so hidden at all. In fact, you’ve probably driven past the bright yellow structure on North Lamar Boulevard many times since it opened in June of 2011.
But the next time you're driving north toward 183, do yourself a favor and pull into the parking lot of Chago’s Caribbean Cuisine, for the authentic Puerto Rican fare being cooked by Santiago “Chago” Aponte is nothing to pass up. Enter the bright lime green and saffron yellow restaurant decorated with festive Puerto Rican music posters and fedoras. You’ll be met with the sound of salsa music and warm greetings from the staff — most likely Solemar, Chago’s charming wife, or perhaps his daughter, son, or nephew who all work at the restaurant too.
“This is our first restaurant ever,” Solemar explains. “I support [Chago] with customer service, but it’s his dream so it’s our baby!”
Solemar, who came to the U.S. from Venezuela to study English in 1983, began teaching salsa classes at the Texas Union and various restaurants around town. Chago, who lived in Puerto Rico at the time but was visiting family in Texas, began attending all her classes. The dance partners soon started dating and then married, returning to Puerto Rico where Chago had a job as a food auditor.
“We managed about 120 different outfits all over the island,” he says. “I learned a lot of stuff from all the chefs and sous chefs. And when someone said, ‘Can you help us open a restaurant in downtown San Juan?’ I said, ‘I sure can. Not a problem.’”
That same year, he ended up relocating to Texas, and the idea of opening his own place kept circling in his mind. Once in Austin he looked into getting a small business loan.
“They said, ‘Well, you have good management skills and accounting, but what about cooking?’” he recalls. Though Chago lacked professional kitchen experience, he’d been cooking for friends and family since college.
“In his culture, on Christmas, there’s a parranda where everybody comes together to sing Christmas songs and everybody prepares Puerto Rican food,” explains Solemar. “And one of the specialties is Chago’s pernil asado (a slow roasted, shredded pork dish). When someone said, ‘Who will be cooking the pernil?’ everybody would say, ‘Chago! Chago! Chago!’”
Chago decided to get professional kitchen experience before moving on to his own project. He worked for a number of franchises and small restaurants before getting a job as the chef for the employees of Motorola. “That’s when I really got the hang of it,” he says. “It was all cooking from scratch and that’s what I like.”
But when he was offered another job in accounting and management, he accepted it and moved his restaurant dream to the back burner.
"Seventeen years later, I decided that I don’t want to die thinking I didn’t just expose myself and do it," Chago says. "So I told my wife, 'The kids are out of high school. I’m going to take this opportunity and see if it works out.' And boom!"
The menu at Chago’s mainly consists of family recipes that have been perfected over the years, from succulent pernil asado, which comes with pigeon peas, rice, and salad; to savory and comforting fricase de pollo, a slow beer-braised chicken stew made with onions, peppers, and olives, and accompanied by a scoop of rice; to hearty pasteles, the Puerto Rican version of tamales made with a mix of plantain, pumpkin, and malanga in lieu of masa.
“[Pasteles] are good but not as easy as tamales,” says Chago. “We always have them year-round. They’re not on the menu, but if you ate with us before, you know they’re available.” Hearing this sort of insider’s tip is no surprise, considering most of Chago’s customers are regulars — some even drive from Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio to enjoy a meal cooked by him.
“A lot of the people who come here — they’re [like] family,” he says.
But most of the customers who walk into Chago’s on a whim have often never been exposed to Puerto Rican cuisine. “It’s not a Mexican restaurant,” he says. “Everyone understands what a taco is or enchiladas — or burgers or fries. But Puerto Rican? Some people think that Jamaica is the only Caribbean paradise ... Explaining what [Puerto Rico is] all about is a daily thing with my customers.”
The best way to understand the island’s cuisine is to simply taste it. Chago’s delivers unforgettable Puerto Rican comfort food infused with the flavors of the island. Favorites include indulgent snacks like pastelillos (turnovers with various fillings) and bolitas de yuca (cassava fritters) to healthy offerings like avocado melon salad with homemade cilantro vinaigrette and a vegetarian paella. The paella is not a traditional dish but rather an invention of Chago’s made with coconut milk, eggplant, chick peas, black beans, peppers, onions, olives, plantains, and chutney, and served with a side salad. And no diner should leave without sampling at least one of the house-made desserts like tres leches cake, tembleque (coconut pudding), or Solemar's passion fruit custard.
“I’ve been exposed in Puerto Rico to many, many outfits — both home cooking and commercial cooking — and I know what it tastes like and I want to bring that part of Puerto Rico to the locals,” says Chago. He’ll often make a lesser-known dish, such as a big pot of sancocho (a traditional soup made with beef, pork, chicken, and root vegetables) and pass samples throughout the dining room.
There’s no doubt Austinites are warming up to Puerto Rican food because the restaurant is experiencing 30 percent growth each year. Chago is even looking into opening a second location — this time with more parking.
“I do a lot of testing and try new recipes all the time because I want to come up with new items,” he says excitedly. “And I want to continue to grow this baby. I have a bunch of ideas and this is only the beginning.”