Juan Ramirez wanted his restaurant to be a bright, happy place, so he painted the inside of Cholula’s with vibrant yellow, red, blue and green. Framed prints by Jesus Helguera, an artist from Ramirez’ native Mexico, hang throughout the dining room, as do sombreros and serapes.
Juan, of Fairmont City, opened Cholula’s in Swansea at 1500 N. Illinois St. in November. Previously, it was the Swansea Family Restaurant. Cholula is the “name of a beautiful city in Puebla,” he said and is known for it’s good food and mole sauce.
The 36-year-old has worked at a St. Louis Mexican restaurant for more than 15 years, and now decided to open his own place, using some recipes from his grandmother. He grew up in Mexico, coming to the United States when he was 18 and then returning for his now-wife, Maria. They grew up as neighbors.
“I want to be ... basically have my time on my own,” the new restaurateur said. “Do what I like, talk to customers, like build a friend relationship.”
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Maria often helps during lunch, but goes home in time to care for their three children – sons Dominick, 5, and Erick, 10, and daughter, Lesly, 14 – after school. They have two employees as well.
Juan’s favorite menu item is the El Toriado, a plate of rice covered in grilled chicken, beef, shrimp and bacon. It’s covered in cheese dip and served with three tortillas, for $11.25.
On a recent Monday, the lunch crowd was enjoying chips and salsa while waiting for their meals.
Linda Erlenbush, 65, of Freeburg, was trying not to fill up on those while she waited for friends from Belleville and Swansea. She says they get together regularly for lunch, often trying new restaurants.
She said the salsa was good and had flavor, but wasn’t too hot. She was struggling to decide what to order from the six-page menu, not including desserts and drinks on page seven.
“I’ll probably get one of the lunch specials,” she said. “Might change my mind a few times first.”
The refried beans and rice are among the house-made items on the menu, Juan said.
The beans are made with vegetable oil – “no lard; people don’t like it” – onions and dried guajillo peppers for flavor.
“I enjoy doing this. When you you make something, and they say they like it, makes you feel good,” Juan says.
at a glance
- What: Cholula’s Mexican Restaurant with lunch/dinner menu and full bar
- Where: 1500 N. Illinois St., Swansea
- Hours: 11 a..m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Carryout: Yes
- Information: 618-416-8818
On the menu
- Speedy Gonzalez No. 1 — One taco, one enchilada, rice or fried beans, $5.50
- Lunch Chimichanga — Flour tortilla deep-fried with beef tips, beans and topped with nacho cheese. Served with rice, beans, lettuce, sour cream and guacamole, $6.75.
- Enchiladas Verde — Three chicken enchiladas topped with green sauce, cilantro and onions. Served with rice and guacamole salad, $7.75.
- Taco Salad Fajitas — Crispy flour tortilla with lettuce, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and tomatoes; with melted cheese sauce topped with chicken or steak, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, $7.50. With shrimp, $9.50.
- Caldo de Camaron — Shrimp soup with rice, pico de gallo and tortillas, $9.25.
- Pollo Suizo — Choice of chicken or steak cooked with onion, tomatoes and bell peppers. Served with rice and cheese sauce, $7.99. With shrimp, $9.25; mixed, $9.50.
- Burrito Carne Asada — Steak and bean burrito, served with lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo, $7.80
- Fajitas Cholula — Beef, chicken, chorizo and shrimp, cooked with onions, bell pepper and tomatoes. Served with lettuce, rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo and tortillas, $12.95 for one person or $22.50 for two.
- Chile Colorado — Steak with red chili sauce, served with rice, beans and tortillas, $8.99.
- Casuelon — Grilled ribeye steak, smoked pork chop and chicken breast cooked with onions. Served with rice, beans and tortillas, $12.99.
- Cholula’s Tilapia — Grilled tilapia with shrimp, melted cheese on top. Served with salad, rice, avocado slices and tomatoes, $9.50.
- Fried Ice Cream, $3.50.