“The funny thing is I never worked in a restaurant before I opened my own,” Mary Githens admitted with a light laugh. “I am not a cook at all." Neither her mother or father was a chef. There were no restaurateurs in her family. She was the first.
“I just like to eat,” she added, laughing again, “and I’m very picky with food. My expectations are very high.”Get Savannah arts and culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our Dine Savannah and Do update newsletters
Ten years ago, Githens, a native of Lima, Peru, co-founded Latin Chicks, turning those high expectations and a great idea into a place that serves a scrumptious staple of Peruvian cuisine.
This past Saturday night, her restaurant celebrated a landmark anniversary.
For three hours, the dining tables were cleared out to create salsa-ing space inside, and its food truck was fired up along East 67th Street with tents and tables for outdoor eating. As the music played, open house guests sipped sangria and feasted on free finger foods. I should have just taken the entire platter of papas rellenas from the server — I could have eaten buckets of those little potato-and-ground beef croquettes.
“It’s a day for us to give,” Githens said, clearly happy about Latin Chicks’ homegrown success. The three hours of entertainment featured DJ Fire, who cranked up the Latin tracks as dozens of dancers quick-stepped and clapped, followed by Peruvian folk dancing, a salsa class, and a Brazilian drumming band, whose members actually sported baby blue Uruguayan soccer jerseys.
While I sat on the side patio and devoured my chicken street tacos, I watched and listened to the drummers as they warmed up and had fun with their families for the better part of a half hour in the adjacent Wendy’s parking lot.
Throughout the evening, a steady crowd of happy customers queued up and ordered cobs of street corn slathered in butter, mayo, cheese, lime, and Tajín, Latin bowls, tacos, and the amazing Peruvian rotisserie chicken, served with rice, beans, and plantains.
In the four-plus years we have lived in Savannah, we have dined at Latin Chicks or ordered take-out dozens of times and not just because it is a five-minute drive down Waters. The food is so delicious, and the service is fast and friendly.
By Saturday night’s turnout, Latin Chicks obviously is a local favorite. The last ten years have been very good to Githens and to everyone who eats her food.
WHICH CAME FIRST?...THE CHICKEN, OF COURSE
Though its co-founder was born in Lima, the concept for Latin Chicks was hatched in a conversation in a car - on a drive up-and-back from Washington, D.C., more than ten years ago.
The entire backstory is the pitch for a movie.
Githens described her older sister, Heidi, as a “rebel.” When Heidi was 19, she met a Peruvian American serviceman who was in Lima. They fell in love. They got married. They moved here when he was stationed at Fort Stewart.
When he was deployed, Githens’s sister found herself in Hinesville, rather the opposite of Lima in terms of size, culture, and everything else you can think of. A year later, Githens came to visit, right about the time she was going to graduate from high school back in Lima, and her sister asked if she wanted to move to Hinesville.
After one more year of high school in America, Githens attended Armstrong University, during which time she met her then-business partner and Latin Chicks co-founder in the last class she took before she graduated, fittingly an entrepreneurship course.
Right after she graduated, they started the business. Githens was 23.
“We were both crazy-minded,” she said about how Latin Chicks came to be, with an even bigger. “We took a trip to Washington, D.C, together, and were talking for eight hours straight, up and back, and we pretty much found out that we had the same idea.”
On the drive back to Georgia, they zeroed in on a space that was available for their shared vision, in the Oglethorpe Mall food court.
Githens remembered saying, “Okay, cool. I’ll call tomorrow. And that’s how it started.” This was 2009, just after the U.S. economy infamously tanked, but the national crisis created this local opportunity for two young entrepreneurs to take. Her then-partner's wife was an international chef, so the kitchen side of the venture was well in hand.
FROM MALL TO MORTAR TO MOBILE
Latin Chicks’ started in Oglethorpe Mall, where birds roasted for five years before Githens moved the enterprise to its current home on Waters Avenue, around the same time she became its sole proprietor. She acknowledged that the move to this location allowed the restaurant to evolve and to grow.
Honestly, Saturday night’s event hosted more people than I had ever seen at Latin Chicks on a random weekday evening. Probably every time we have been there, my wife and I have said something to the effect of, “I hope this place is doing okay.”
‘Okay’ does not even scratch the surface, it seems.
“We are in the middle of two hospitals,” Githens reasoned, “and the food that we make is healthy. It’s quick as well.”
When in a mall food court, the prospective diner is, perhaps understandably, not looking for health-conscious, scratch-homemade cuisine, so having a brick-and-mortar all its own expanded the restaurant’s purpose without changing its ethos in the slightest.
She noted that Latin Chicks’ catering enterprise has been able to thrive in this space, serving orders to both Memorial and St. Joseph’s/Candler, and the dine-in and takeaway audience in the surrounding neighborhoods has been limitless.
There is really no ‘down time’ here. Even when the dining room is rather empty, Latin Chicks’ kitchen is cooking, using those hours to do all of the prep for the catering side of the business and now the food truck.
Githens likened the quieter moments at her restaurant to what you might see at a McDonald’s or the Wendy’s next door: even if no one is dining in, the drive-thru window has a line.
“It’s the same here,” she explained. “You see people coming in and out just to pick up food. We have Uber Eats. We have people call in. That is all take out.”
Adding to its brand and scope, the Latin Chicks food truck started rolling back in February. Githens had spent the last two years working with another food truck and gaining experience with that 21st-century branch of the trade before launching her own.
Her mobile eatery serves up the same chicken, but there is no way to walk off with a churrasco steak. Instead, the menu features Latin street food such as tacos, Mexican cob corn, quesadillas, and pork sandwiches. Items similar to their main menu but more fit for a festival.
Two Saturdays ago, Githens and her team had three separate operations going: the Pooler Food Truck Festival, catering a film shoot in Richmond Hill, and the restaurant on Waters.
Running three restaurants in three far-flung locations in one day is a good problem to have.
Before we moved to Savannah, we had been told of Latin Chicks by a soon-to-be colleague of mine. The catchy-punny name itself was memorable and, even today, makes me smile. The word was that this smallish, locally owned restaurant with the cute chicken head logo was one-of-a-kind and served authentic and delicious Latin cuisine, including the eponymous rotisserie chicken.
Back in Baltimore, Chicken Rico is the Peruvian pollo empire, its flagship location on Eastern Avenue in a neighborhood known as Highlandtown, which born-and-bred Bawlmerians pronounce “Hollandtahn.” (Don’t ask.)
Because it was a decent drive from our house, we only ate at Chicken Rico every so often, but it did not need us to build its dining domain. Now with five locations, the brand is coming up on its 30th anniversary serving basted birds and savory sides to a loyal Baltimore following.
Here in Savannah, Latin Chicks is the one and only place for this pollo, and Githens confirmed that chicken like this is not just a thing in Peru. It is the thing. The darling logo and her restaurant’s name signify the signature dish for good reason: it is all about this chicken.
“It’s a thing here because it’s a thing in Peru,” she said. “We eat rotisserie chicken. It’s our version of fast food but making it healthy.”
Whereas American fast and comfort foods and many Latin American cuisines tend to require a deep fryer, Peruvian dishes do not, making this chicken Peru’s version of ‘fast food’, though a much more wholesome preparation.
MAS YUCA, POR FAVOR
I am not really a ‘political’ guy, but if I had a personal platform, per se, yuca would be on it.
If you have never had a yuca fry, have your first - and second and third and dozenth - at Latin Chicks. They are the perfect side to go with this chicken or a churrasco steak or with nothing at all: lightly crispy on the outside and pillowy soft inside. Dip just one in the spicy mayo and you will forget about fries and ketchup - at least until the next time you go to Green Truck or Circa.
Seriously, we need to unite as a people to make yuca fries as popular as its potato counterpart.
Githens agreed with me and then explained that yuca fries are not difficult to make, but because a cassava is not as common as a potato in the states, this truly special side is underappreciated.
“Because people don’t know it, people don’t order it,” she explained. “Because people don’t order it, people don’t eat it. And because we don’t get as much imported, the price is higher.”
For these logical ECON101 reasons, a cassava is more expensive than a russet, but if we all create the deserved demand, we can drive down the price of this South American root veg. Who’s with me?
Otherwise, Latin Chicks’ array of menu items runs from purely Peruvian to pan-Latin, and the recipes are Githens’s ideas as well as takes on familiar fare: saltado de pollo is another Peruvian chicken speciality, sauteed and served in a wine sauce; some iteration of ropa vieja is on almost every Latin menu; churrasco steak comes from Argentina; the Pork is somewhere between Cuba and Puerto Rico; rice, beans, and plantains are eaten throughout Latin and South America.
This is why the restaurant is not called ‘Peruvian Chicks’.
If you have never been, you have to order the chicken. Better yet, go with friends or family, order one of each entrée, and pass the plates.
No matter what, do what I do: order double yuca.
As you lick the spices from your fingers, take a moment to recognize that you are sitting in the Peruvian American dream, right there at 5205 Waters Avenue.