The Zantigo name evokes memories of 1970s-era Mexican food consumed late at night in your car. But while most were shuttered in the 1980s or became Taco Bells, there are still five locations across the Twin Cities serving up its signature menu item: the simple but apparently habit-forming chilito.
“It is our No. 1-selling item,” says Don Kaelble, who owns the local chain with brother Kevin. “It’s just chili sauce and cheese on a flour tortilla.” (A hand-stretched tortilla, he adds.)
Zantigo currently operates in St. Paul, Bloomington, Woodbury, Blaine and Fridley and is one of several restaurant brands surviving—in vastly reduced form—from bygone eras. (Pannekoeken Huis and Rocky Rococo also still have local outposts.)
Zantigo began as Zapata in the late 1960s and was shuffled among various ownership groups as it grew. There were dozens of locations across the Midwest when it was sold to PepsiCo—which already owned Taco Bell—in 1986. Zantigos were converted or closed. Kaelble worked for the original chain from 1975 to 1987.
In the 1990s, the Kaelbles opened a few Zapata restaurants and later discovered that the Zantigo brand was no longer under PepsiCo’s control. When the Fridley spot opened in 2000, they revived the Zantigo name.
“The best compliment is when they say ‘This tastes just like it did when I was kid,’ ” says Kaelble.
Back in the 1980s, you could find square slices of Rocky Rococo pizza all over town, including downtown Minneapolis, Uptown and Dinkytown. Today a single location in Brooklyn Park remains. (Rococo remains ubiquitous in Wisconsin, where it has 25 locations.) Trey Hester, president of Rocky Rococo Restaurants, did not return phone calls about his lone Minnesota pizzeria.
A pannekoeken is a puffy, oven-baked Dutch pancake. In 1996, state revenue officials raided nine restaurants owned by Edina-based Sytje’s Pannekoeken Family Restaurants Inc. for unpaid taxes. The chain later filed for bankruptcy, but franchised locations were not affected. Today the only remaining Huis is in St. Louis Park. Derek Moberg and his father Roger own the restaurant. Another former franchisee operates a Pannekoeken in Rochester, sans the “Huis” moniker.
Because when it comes to puffy pancakes, puffy pizza, or the chilito, nostalgia sells. “Everybody’s kind of got a story of the original Pannekoeken that they used to go to,” says Moberg. “It’s a very unique product that you can’t find anywhere else.”