I If you are looking for authentic Mexican food in Nashville, Chago’s Cantina owner Chad Head says you’ll have to look somewhere else. But, he’s betting, you’ll like what you find on his menu anyway. It’s been going strong and growing stronger since March of 2011.
From the popular Pollo Gringo, a simple dish of chicken and queso, to the belly tacos—something he claims are the best tacos in the city—Chago’s is dishing out Chad’s favorite Mexican dishes made the way he likes to eat them. And that appears to be a smart business plan so far.
“It’s important to know that we don’t claim to be authentic Mexican food whatsoever,” Head says. “First of all, people get really confused when you say authentic. There are so many different regions of Mexico. It’s no different than in the US. Barbecue, for example, is completely different in Memphis than it is in Kansas City or the Carolinas. Basically, what I’ve done is I’ve used some of my favorite stuff that I like to eat. And it’s not fusion, because everything is fusion. It’s Mexican food made our way. We just like to make it good.”
Chad announces his lack of culinary training right on the front page of his menu, saying he is not a highly decorated chef. But don’t let the words fool you; this is a guy with food service in his blood and he knows what he’s doing. He grew up in the restaurant business, starting in the kitchen as soon as his dad felt he was old enough to work at his place, a barbecue joint called Cooter’s. Head worked as a dishwasher, table busser and early on did everything from clean the range hood to mop the floors. Later, when his dad started Rally’s Hamburgers, now a national chain owned by Checkers, he moved up to pouring sodas and cooking fries.
“I’d get paid $100 cash to work about 60 hours,” he says with a smile.
After moving to Nashville, he took up other restaurant jobs including bartending, serving and eventually management at a pizza parlor. When the family got into the barbecue business again, opening a new franchise location of the Memphis-based Corky’s Barbecue in Brentwood, Chad went to work there until he’d had his fill of working for a concept someone else had dreamed up. He had a dream of his own.
“It was fun working at Corky’s but it really wasn’t my thing,” Head says. “We still own it, but it wasn’t too exciting having someone else tell me what the recipes were. It’s a great business, but that got boring for me.”
As a child, Mexican food was a staple of Chad’s diet: “Growing up in San Diego, we had a housekeeper and she taught me Spanish and I taught her English. She cooked every day and I loved Mexican food. And I loved cooking it,” Head recalls. “Deciding to do a Mexican restaurant made sense for me because of that, and also because this is all a very risky business and I know everyone eats Mexican food…sometimes two or three days a week.”
After trying a few times to pin down a location for a new Mexican concept in Nashville and not having much success, Head found the spot that would become home for Chago’s Cantina—“Chago,” by the way, is Chad’s longtime nickname given to him by his Salvadoran friends.
“We had a lease deal that was given to someone else on the final day and at that point we decided to stop for a while and take a step back,” he says. “Then this building became available and I came over here on that day.”
The building, located at 2015 Belmont Boulevard, turned out to be a prime spot for entertaining Belmont University students, a demographic that Chad believes may make up as much as 80% of his clientele, although it has more than begun to catch on with families citywide.
Being the restaurant pro, Chad realized early on that his original idea to appeal primarily to foodies like himself might not be the best decision for the business. After seeing the Mexican menu attract droves of students, and seeing the reality of what was selling well and what was not, the menu took on a new look in about three weeks.
“Quesadillas and queso were selling and some of the other cooler dishes were not,” he says. “We still do some of that stuff and some great specials, but the changes to the menu right off the bat ended up making the business take off and we’re doing really well.”
It appears to have been a smart move. But Head knew you couldn’t necessarily stand out in the ever-growing crowd of eateries in the booming Nashville market without addressing the demands of the city’s rapidly increasing number of diners who look for local sourcing and quality food products. Chago’s can check off that box, too.
“It’s not 100% locally sourced because it’s not feasible,” he says. “I came up in a totally different world from people who use locally sourced products. My dad ran huge chains where you bought cheap stuff and then made it good. And that’s totally fine.”
But at Chago’s the food comes from a more thoughtful place, bearing a closer resemblance to the health-conscious selections found in Chad’s home refrigerator than that of some chain establishments. “Personally, most of the food in my fridge is pretty healthy and locally sourced and often organic,” he says.
And he takes that approach at the restaurant as often as he is able to do so. “We get our steak from Gourmet Pasture Beef in Springfield,” he says. “Our lamb comes from Tavalin Tails and we get whole hogs from Wedge Oak Farms (in Wilson County) and we also use KLD Farms in Ashland City. Ken [Drinnon] has been a beef farmer in the area his entire life and he helps me source other pigs and goats and things like that.”
When it comes to produce, it can’t get much more locally sourced than growing it on the owner’s personal property. “We have our own little farm for produce called Berge Creek Farm,” Head says. “I do a lot out of my yard, as well. We have a half-acre plot in Kentucky. We get a lot of vegetables out of there and of course it’s a seasonal thing. We don’t do that in winter since I’m a restaurant owner and not a farmer. That’s very, very demanding work to be a farmer.”
When they can’t grow their own, they opt for regular trips to local farmers’ markets. When that isn’t cutting it, Head will use a food service to get what he needs to make the menu possible. “We have pico de gallo,” he says. “So we always need tomatoes. There are things you just have to have.”
With a no-nonsense and realistic approach to the business and a passion for a popular cuisine cooked the way real folks like to eat it, it is no surprise Chago’s Cantina is doing better than ever.