CARLOS CHICO ISN’T SHY ABOUT THE SECRET TO SUCCESS at Chico’s Tortas y Piñas Lokas, the nearly five-year-old Santa Rosa restaurant he owns with his wife, Juany. While sitting in a booth together, Carlos gives a lighthearted smile with a hand on his belly and explains that he and his wife are a team: Juany creates the food, and he is the taste tester.

“What is most important for us is the sabor,” says Carlos. “Our food is authentic and completely distinct. We are not an imitation of anyone else. Our recipes are original from our family.”

Originally from the Mexican state of Guerrero, the couple began their journey in 2012 with a modest food stand at Park Lake, Santa Rosa’s popular summer hangout. Their delicious Mexican food and aguas frescas were an instant hit. “I couldn’t believe the lines of people, and that the americanos were so enthusiastic about our food,” says Juany. “This was completely new to me, cooking for so many.”

from left Enjoy a Piña Loka in the patio; Juany Chico shows off her famous Piña Loka, made with pineapple, watermelon, mango, cantaloupe, and jicama. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Carranza Pino.

As a young girl, Juany was enchanted by her mother’s cooking. But when she offered to help, her mom would come up with reasons to say no. “But this is how I learned to cook,” she explains, “all those years just watching my mother.”

When the opportunity to lease an empty KFC location arose, they jumped at it, opening Chico’s in a bright-yellow building with red and blue accents right off Route 66 in September 2018. Juany recalls that at first locals weren’t comfortable with some of the menu items, such as tripa (intestines) and lengua (tongue). “They would say, ‘Those parts aren’t for eating,’ ” she laughs, adding that now those items bring the regulars back for more.

Through the years, five of their children and several nieces and nephews have worked at the restaurant. “I know my husband and I won’t be around forever,” Juany says. “But we feel confident that we have taught our kids well.”

Keeping the restaurant, catering business, and two food trucks going hasn’t come without some pivoting. When the pandemic hit, the Chicos expanded their takeout offerings and their patio. Then food prices soared, but their homemade sabor wasn’t something they were willing to sacrifice. “Our tortillas are caseras; our guacamole, ceviche, aguas frescas, and salsa are made fresh every day,” says Carlos. He adds that vendors have offered prepackaged mixes and other cheaper items to help with the cost, but they refused. “We are not fast food, just real Mexican food made and served by Mexicans,” he says.

Read more: A food truck empire grows in Albuquerque, helped along by a few big-time honors.

Chico’s Tortas y Piñas Lokas

2306 U.S. Rt. 66, Santa Rosa;