Remember This: Those cheese chilitos at Zantigo 'were to die for'

'You'll be back, amigo!'
Remember This: Those cheese chilitos at Zantigo 'were to die for'
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-12 12:04:22-05

Sometimes, it takes just a few words to make people wistful, happy -- even downright misty. Mentioning their trusty dog, their state champion high school football team or their favorite beer will often do the trick.

Other times, it takes nothing more than a single word to evoke all those reactions and more. For Cincinnatians of a certain age, that word is "Zantigo."

Next time you're at a gathering with folks old enough to have enjoyed fast food in the 1970s and '80s, utter the word and see what happens. You won't have to wait long

"Oh, I used to love that place!" said Nicole Goodson of Colerain Township. "I'd always order two tacos. My stepmom would say, 'Why don't you get a third?' but I'd get two. But then I'd always, always, go back for a third.

"It was just so fresh -- way better than Taco Bell."

Now, depending on your level of food snobbery -- and perhaps, how often "drinking food" or "hangover food" used to be a thing in your life -- being way better than Taco Bell might not seem like much of a compliment.

But you would be wrong in that assessment. The chain was a far cry from the fast-food places many people have grown to accept today, which often serve chicken fingers and fries grown dry and tasteless under a heat lamp.

A T-shirt at Cincy Shirts features the old Zantigo logo. (Photo provided by Cincy Shirts)

Zantigo, on the other hand, served fresh and tangy delicacies to a drooling public -- chips and cheese, bowls of chili, taco burritos, taco salads, all dressed with homemade red or green sauces and stretchy with loads of fresh cheese, not the "cheese product" or "sauce" so popular today.

But there was room for only one superstar on the Zantigo menu, and its name was "chilito." Any conversation or online search about the Mexican fast-food chain usually starts with rhapsodizing about the cheese chilito, a savory blend of spices, cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses, tomato sauce and love rolled up in a flour tortilla. Zantigo also offered a green-sauce chilito, but most of the waxing poetic involves the cheese/classic version.

Amy Westerkamp Chestnut remembers the first time she tried a chilito.

"I remember being, like, 'What!?' I loved them -- they were really messy but so great," said Chestnut, who lives in Memphis but grew up in Cincinnati and used to visit Zantigo with her family at least once a week.

Foodies inevitably point out that Zantigo, or any ethnic fast-food place, isn't legitimate, but Chestnut loved it just the same.

"I guess you can't really call any fast food authentic, but it was a step above most other places," she said.

Gail England of Phoenix is even more effusive about the beloved chilito. Cincinnati native England and a friend used to eat twice a week at the location on Beechmont Avenue, where she would always order two cheese chilitos and one burrito.

"Chilitos were to die for. I believe they will always go down in history as being the best Mexican item any fast-food place ever made," England said. "No one has ever duplicated it."

Through a convoluted series of business deals involving KFC, PepsiCo, R.J. Reynolds and Nabisco, most of the 82 restaurants in the Minneapolis-based Zantigo chain were converted to Taco Bell eateries by 1987 after Zantigo went out of business.

Like many in Cincinnati, Kelly Sowder was not happy when her favorite teen hangout and fast-food joint, the Zantigo on Glenway Avenue, went away.

"Oh my gosh, we were so bummed!" said Sowder, who lives in Fairfield Township. She even worked at Taco Bell later, in college, but it never quite captured her heart, or stomach, the same way.

Daniel Johnson of Colerain Township wasn't just unhappy about Zantigo's closure: "When I heard, I felt hurt!"

For Sharon Rolfes Hite, too, Zantigo was a hangout as much as a favorite place to eat.

"We would go almost after every football game when I cheered (for Anderson High School) and would also hang out after going out," said Hite, who now lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

More than a decade-and-a-half after Zantigo went out of business, Mike Gambill was reminiscing in 2004 with a friend about how much they loved it. Growing up in Sayler Park, he frequented the Glenway Avenue location, and later as a University of Cincinnati student, he would hit up the McMillan Avenue spot.

On a whim, Gambill searched online and found to his surprise that a new version of his beloved Zantigo had been opened by restaurateurs after the brand rights were no longer under PepsiCo's control. Gambill faxed the operation, which had several locations in Minneapolis, to let them know how much he and his friends missed the chain and how they wished it would come back to Cincinnati.

Don Kaelble, who opened a new Zantigo chain in Minneapolis-St. Paul after the brand was out from under PepsiCo's control, and a business associate cook up chilitos at the home of Mike and Dawn Gambill in 2004. (Photo provided by Mike Gambill)

The chilito stars must have been aligned that day, because owner Don Kaelble got in touch and let Gambill know that he would be visiting Cincinnati for business. Kaelble brought cases full of Zantigo products to Gambill's home and cooked up a feast for him and his family and friends.

"It tasted every bit as great as I remembered," said Gambill.

Zantigo has never re-entered the Cincinnati market (or, apparently, anywhere but Minneapolis-St. Paul), but some locals still hold out hope. For them, an old tagline from Zantigo's commercials might express it best:

"You'll be back, amigo!"