Some days, Jesse Soria thinks he’d like to slow down and maybe sell his business – Cholita’s Mexican Restaurant, which has operated for three decades in the Westlink Shopping Center at Central and Tyler.
But when he brings it up, a family member always objects.
“Every time we think we might want to sell, one of the grandkids says, ‘P-Pa, when can we start working there?’” he said with a laugh.
This month, Soria, 60, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his family business, where he’s been serving tacos, tamales and chile rellenos since his five now-grown children were all little.
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The restaurant, which is tucked in the corner of the shopping center anchored by Westlake Ace Hardware, is easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there. You have to locate the sign with the sombrero, then pass through two separate sets of doors to work your way inside.
Once there, you will likely find Soria’s wife, Linda, scooping up basket of chips while his son, Jacob, and daughter, Katie, bustle plates of enchiladas and their father’s famous “kitchen sauce” out to tables.
You’ll find a no-frills restaurant, with wood paneling, high ceilings and basic black tables and chairs, and you’ll probably see Hope Leal, who has worked as a Cholita’s server for 25 years. (One of Cholita’s cooks has been in the kitchen just as long.)
Soria grew up the youngest of seven children, and he was the only one born in the United States. His parents, Antonio and Soledad, immigrated from Vera Cruz, Mexico, looking for a better life for their children.
When Soria was in college, his older sister, Marta Norton, opened La Chinita at 1451 N. Broadway. She hired her brother to work in the kitchen.
Years later, Soria got an offer from his sister. How would he like to open a west-side La Chinita?
Even though he had a full-time job, Soria accepted her offer and opened the restaurant on Sept. 1, 1986, in a space that had just been vacated by M&M Bierock Kitchen (still in business today at 2065 E. Central). Six months after opening, Soria and his wife, Linda, purchased the restaurant and changed the name to Cholita’s, an homage to Soria’s mother, Soledad, whose nickname was “Chola.” She frequented the restaurant until her death in 2010, frequently assembling silverware packets in the corner and chatting with customers.
Business was decent but slow enough that Soria needed to find another job to keep money coming in. He took a job with Sedgwick County working at the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch. He continued working for the county until he retired five years ago. (Soria still has a day job, though, working for a law firm that helps clients apply for disability.)
“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said. “A lot of months, we didn’t draw a paycheck because a lot of months, there wasn’t anything to left to pay.”
Things changed for Cholita’s in 1987.
A tragic holiday fire in Wichita killed four of a local family’s 12 children. Cholita’s was one of several local businesses that offered to help raise money for the family and set aside a Sunday where proceeds from all sales were donated. The restaurant was flooded with business and ran out of food, Soria remembers. He raised $3,000. In the weeks, months and years that followed, Soria said, people just kept coming.
They’re still coming today. Soria said. Cholita’s has a regular clientele, who come from all over Wichita. They love the homemade tortilla chips, the fried tacos and the chile rellenos (which Cholita’s staff always warn customers are constructed using a toothpick, so watch out). Regulars also know to request Soria’s “kitchen sauce,” a spicy, pork-laden sauce served warm in a salsa bowl along with the chips.
Though the restaurant has its regulars, its out-of-the-way location and non-flashy storefront has kept it from being more well known, Soria said. Even after 30 years, he often gets customers who tell him they had no idea the restaurant was there until they stumbled across it.
He toyed with moving to a more visible spot over the years but decided against it. Business has been good, so why change the recipe?
“We’ve been kind of unnoticed here,” he said. “It used to bother me, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.”
Over the years, all five of Soria’s children worked in the restaurant. The first was eldest daughter, Heather, who at age 15 was desperate for a pair of designer jeans.
“She wanted some Jordache jeans,” Soria said. “And we told her, ‘If you want Jordache jeans, you can start working.’ I’ll be darned if she didn’t start working right away.”
“They weren’t Jordache jeans, Dad,” Heather told her father when she stopped in the restaurant for lunch on a recent Wednesday. “They were Guess.”
Youngest daughter Katie Finkeldei, who spent much of her childhood in the restaurant, now helps run it, along with her brother, Jacob. Soria wonders if Katie would like to take over the restaurant one day, but he doesn’t really want that for her. Running the place is all-consuming, he said, noting that he’s worked 60-hour weeks as long as he can remember. With no good answers apparent, Soria just tries not to think about the future of Cholita’s.
Instead, he likes to remember its past – all 30 years of it.
“We’re small. We’re not fancy,” he said. “We’ve just been here serving good food for 30 years.”
Cholita’s Mexican Restaurant
Where: 8987 W. Central, 316-722-3711
Type of food: Mexican
Alcohol: Full bar, all alcoholic drinks are $3 every day
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; closed Sundays