Chips and salsa will never be taken for granted again post-virus

Owner Sam Guerrera dips a chip into his restaurant's salsa Thursday at Mi Torito restaurant. The restaurant has continued to provide its customers with the staple treat even as COVID-19 temporarily closed their dining room.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Sometimes when the chips are down, you don’t get chips, much less chips and salsa.

The pandemic has forced Rio Grande Valley residents to make a number sacrifices in terms of suspending leisure activities, limiting travel to essential trips, obeying curfews, wearing a mask and even, in some cases, living without the time-honored ritual of settling down to a basket of fresh chips and salsa while leisurely perusing a menu.

The dire situation is the result of official orders to temporarily shutter dining areas to slow the spread of the coronavirus, though it can seem at times as if the very fabric of civilization is unraveling.

Representing the two poles of chips-and-salsa availability during the pandemic are Mi Torito Restaurant at 715 N. Expressway in Brownsville, and La Playa Mexican Cafe at 502 S. Sunshine Strip in Harlingen. Free chips and salsa are a La Playa tradition, though a critical chip shortage has caused management to have to make some difficult decisions.

Jose Ramirez, manager at La Playa, said salsa continues to go out with the restaurant’s curbside takeout orders, though sadly unaccompanied by its BFF, the chip.

“The chips, we were limited on what we had, so we’re using the chips to make our botana platter for two or more, our botana platter and panchos, so we can do a meal,” he said. “We’re taking advantage of what we had to make family platters.”

Ramirez said many customers have been asking when things will get back to normal. La Playa did not plan to reopen its dining area Friday, though Gov. Greg Abbott gave restaurants the green light to reopen at 25 percent occupancy. Nor does it plan to wait until May 18, when the governor hopes to implement 50 percent occupancy for restaurant and retail stores. Rather, La Playa took advantage of the lock-down to do some remodeling, and plans to reopen at 25 percent occupancy on May 8. It will usher in the reunification of the dream team, chips and salsa, for eager customers.

“They’ll be happy,” Ramirez said.

On the flip side, curbside takeout patrons of such establishments as Mi Torito have been luckier. Owner Sam Guerrero said the vital delivery of free chips and salsa has not been impeded, not even by an emergency lock-down.

“Our chips and salsa, because they’re homemade, and we make them here, in-house, we have a lot of fans, and I’m one of them,” Guerrero said. “It’s one of the things that drew me to this place. The chips are awesome and the salsa — the pico de gallo — is great. We’ve continued and we put it in the to-go orders. And we’re going to try continue doing that as long as we can.”

It can get pricey, he conceded, especially when customers ask for seconds and even thirds.

“We don’t charge for it,” Guerrero said. “I know it can get a little expensive, but it’s part of the restaurant and part of the legacy, so we continued. We have a lot of people, believe it or not, that will even tell us can you give me just chips in a bag. So we’ll give them a bag with just chips.”

Mi Torito planned to re-open its dining area to 25 percent capacity Friday. Guerrero said he’s looking forward to being back to 100 percent.