You know a restaurant takes fun seriously when at the front door, there’s a cartoonish blow-up cactus holding a guitar and wearing a sombrero.
That’s the kind of vibe you’ll experience at Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen, a restaurant in Brea that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Cha Cha’s started in 2009, during a era of deep economic turmoil nationwide. It wasn’t exactly the best time to open a restaurant, but co-founders Don Myers and Peter Serantoni really liked the downtown Brea location at 110 W. Birch St.
That April, in what Myers describes as “one hour in which to make the deal,” they acquired the Birch Street spot without so much as a name for their new business.
“There wasn’t a master plan,” explained Serantoni. “It just kind of fell in our lap.”
By August, only four months later, they had developed a menu and a cocktail program, completed the remodeling and did staff training.
“It was a very quick turnaround,” Serantoni said.
The name ended up coming from their landlord, who had heard about their vision and called it their “Cha Cha’s concept.”
The restaurant began its life as Cha Cha’s Tacos & Tequila before they changed it to Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen, which better reflected their modern Latin American cuisine.
Things started out slow, however.
“We were worried it wouldn’t work out,” Serantoni said. “As luck and time would have it, we stuck with it and kept it going. Little by little, it started to get momentum.”
Now, generations are enjoying the fare and seeing how Myers’ and Serantoni’s skills complement one another. Myers, an unofficial “mayor of Brea,” handles the front of the house, while Serantoni, with his culinary experience, oversees the back.
The guys said they’ve stood apart by having an atypical approach to Mexican and Latin food, as well as a strong seafood emphasis.
You can order fresh Manila claims (sautéed with garlic and served with Spanish chorizo, fresh herbs in a white wine sauce that’s got a touch of butter) and later add their excellent seafood caldo (a mix of shrimp, clams, fresh fish and squid in a tomato saffron broth with herbs and angel hair pasta) to your bill.
“I think it’s the best damn dish in Orange County,” Myers said with a laugh.
Another standout at Cha Cha’s is the open-faced short rib enchiladas (which are guajillo-braised and come with goat cheese, fresh radish and epazote black beans). I can also heartily recommend the wood-fired queso fundido (a traditional cazuela baked cheese with roasted potato and chorizo or mushrooms) as well as their house-made guacamole (made with Hass avocados, serrano chiles and lime juice).
As for the bar, you can’t go wrong with the solid margarita lineup in oversized margaritas glasses. Start with their classic (with El Jimador tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime and agave nectar) then upgrade to the mango habañero (Pueblo Viejo tequila, mango, fresh lime juice and a habañero chili infusion).
In 2017, Cha Cha’s expanded with an essentially carbon-copy location in Irvine. In 2012, Myers and Serantoni opened Brunos Italian Kitchen a few doors down from Cha Cha’s.
As for the future of Cha Cha’s, Myers said they’re planning a remodel of the original Brea location. Still, he added, “It will be a Cha Cha’s that you recognize.”
IF YOU GO
What: Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen
Where: 110 W. Birch St., Brea and 13126 Jamboree Road, Irvine
When: Open daily for lunch and dinner. Sunday brunch also available.