When the waters of Superstorm Sandy receded from Highlands, Leo Cervantes and his staff at Chilango’s recovered the non-spoiled inventory from their destroyed Bay Avenue restaurant and invited the entire town to a free dinner that they prepared and served at Henry Hudson Regional High School which was serving as a shelter for hundreds of residents displaced by the storm.
His business was destroyed, but his home was spared by Sandy. Yet, for weeks after the storm, Cervantes continued to prepare meals for his friends and neighbors in the Henry Hudson shelter.
Leo left the poverty of Neza, a tough town outside of Mexico City in 1989, settling first in Asbury Park with his brother who had come a few years before. He got a job washing dishes at the Cypress Inn in Wanamassa. Before long he was working days for a landscaper and nights at the restaurant.
When the Cypress Inn closed, Leo went to work at The Shadowbrook. Owner Richard Zweben sponsored Leo for his green card.
With $1000 and a note held by the seller, Leo opened Chilango’s Long Branch in 1999. The four table restaurant thrived on take-out sold mostly to fellow hispanics who appreciated the authentic Mexican cuisine…the way real Mexican food should taste.
Three years later, Leo bought a building on Bay Ave in Highlands and open Chilango’s as an authentic Mexican restaurant and Tequila bar. Quickly, Chilango’s became a local and regional favorite. As his business grew, Leo became an important contributing member of the community with his constant support of civic organizations, the Highlands Businss Partnership and he served a term on the Zoning Board.
Leo became a natualized U.S. Citizen in 2008.
Chilango’s was written up in The New York Times in 2011.
Now, four months after Sandy hit, Leo’s bank account is about back to where it was when he opened in Long Branch in 1999. He is caught in the red tape of the SBA and his insurance company, both of whom are asking him to resubmit information he’s already submitted multiple times. Windnsea and Shadowbrook have both hosted Chilango’s Nights since the storm which were a help in holding over and raising some money for rebuidling, but not enough. Leo’s spent almost all of his savings on rebuilding, but he’s coming up short.
But he doesn’t want a handout. Leo’s goal is to raise $50,000 by selling gift certificates redeemable for Mexican food the way it should taste when Chilango’s reopens. He can be open in a matter of weeks.
Certificates can be purchased through the link below, and/or stop by the tent Leo will have set up in his parking lot to serve Irish Burritos next Saturday at the Highlands St. Patrick’s Parade.
Your emailed receipt for your “donation” will be your gift certificate. Bring it with you to apply to your check when you dine at the re-opened Chilango’s.