American dream in a Mexican restaurant

HIGHLANDS – There aren’t many restaurants in New Jersey that can attest to being rock legend Bruce Springsteen’s favorite. chilangos in the Highlands may.

“I came into contact with Bruce’s personal chef, Jacob Varela, after a chance encounter at my restaurant in 2000,” said Leo Cervantes, owner of the Mexican restaurant. “Jacob invited me to his birthday party where Bruce would be making an appearance. I met him and he told me he was starting a tequila collection. He liked the selection I had in my restaurant and was very impressed with the types I wore at that time.

“Soon after, Bruce decided to throw a party at my restaurant for me and my employees,” Cervantes said. “Bruce and his wife Patti showed up at the party and told me how much they loved the food. After discussing my own life story with Bruce at length, he told me that my journey was the true definition of the American dream. We’ve been good friends ever since, and he continues to browse my tequila collection, which includes nearly 300 different types.

Cervantes’ American dream began on the outskirts of Mexico City. It was not an easy experience.

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“We grew up in poverty and our neighborhood was very difficult,” Cervantes said. “We went to school every day with torn shoes, which was very difficult for my siblings and me. Fortunately, my mother, who is my heroine, tried hard every day to improve the life of our family, no matter what.

“She was hard working and very positive, so she started making clothes for me and my siblings,” Cervantes said. “Afterwards, for the most part, we had nice clothes to wear and she kept doing it for a while just to take care of us.”

Cervantes started working for himself at a very young age to help support his family.

“We did a bit of everything,” Cervantes said. “We washed cars, worked with mechanics and things like that. I even had my hand in the plumbing for a little while. We started with virtually nothing, as far as our living space goes, and built our house from scratch. It took a while, but we were happy once it was all done.

At some point, Cervantes’ mother, Abigail, decided to open a convenience store and had several different locations.

“We opened a small store in Mexico,” Cervantes said. “My mum had a friend who originally opened the stores, but because she was good friends with my mum, she told my mum she would help her by having her run these stores. Even though we were very young at the time, we helped in the stores and that kept us out of trouble.

“As my siblings and I grew up and eventually moved to the United States, my mother began to close the stores because she had no concrete reason to keep them open, other than to support me and to the rest of our family,” Cervantes said. “I’m the baby of the family, so when I was old enough to go out on my own, my mom closed the last store and had enough money to live on her own.”

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Leo Cervantes, owner of Chilangos in Highlands on May 18, 2022.

Dishwasher in Asbury Park

At 19, Cervantes came to the United States and lived in Asbury Park. He got a job as a dishwasher at the Cypress Inn in the Wanamassa section of Ocean Township and cycled back and forth.

“I remember my first day there,” Cervantes said. “As soon as I arrived in the kitchen, I saw how hectic and fast everything was and I immediately felt at home. I absolutely loved the atmosphere. I saw the chefs shouting, screaming and sweat. I knew it was definitely for me. I’m a super guy.

“As I worked there day by day, I got better at work and my boss started noticing my work ethic,” Cervantes said. “He told me he wanted me to make more money, so he gave me a job as a bus boy. I told him I didn’t speak English at the time, but he told me said I would learn.

Cervantes rose through the ranks. “Some of my co-workers first dragged me into learning English bit by bit, once I got to the kitchen,” Cervantes said. “I would continue to have a problem at my job that would forever change my experiences with English. My English was still a bit sketchy back then, although my early experiences had me listening to the Beatles as a kid and reading the lyrics on the back of the inner packaging.

“It was a day when I was running errands for my boss at the Cyprus Inn that really made me serious,” Cervantes said. “I was told to go to a local supply store and get something for my job. I basically missed that run and totally picked up the wrong item due to a lack of understanding. When everyone saw the mistake i made, they laughed and i thought it was funny.after that i straightened my approach to knowing how to speak english and i swore never again let something like this happen again.

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A caravan of Chilangos in front of the Highlands restaurant on May 18, 2022.

Starting chilangos

After the Cypress Inn closed, Cervantes began working at the Shadowbrook Restaurant in Shrewsbury. Cervantes started out as a cook and became a chef after working hard and getting along with his boss.

“Although I did a great job in Shadowbrook, I got together with my brother and we decided to open our own restaurant in Long Branch, which would serve as the first location for the Chilangos restaurant,” Cervantes said. “After a year, my brother decided to quit and go on my own, while I continued to work at Shadowbrook and operate the Chilangos restaurant.

“I finally got a letter from a real estate agent regarding a business opportunity in Highlands for a restaurant for a large sum of money,” Cervantes said. “Even though I didn’t have that amount of money, I was eligible for a loan and applied for it. I was successful with the loan and ended up leaving Shadowbrook and leaving my original location which was Chilangos. I gave the business to a friend of mine, who ran it for four years before finally selling it, so I could focus one hundred percent on the Highlands location.

Since opening his Highlands store in 2001, Cervantes couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve worked so hard to be where I am now and everything I ever dreamed of has come true with this company,” Cervantes said. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the top, but I couldn’t have gotten there without all the love and support from my family and friends over the years. I couldn’t have imagined what has been made possible with all the relationships I’ve made and the amazing people I’ve met. It’s been a team effort from the start and I couldn’t have do it alone.

Cervantes prides itself on the quality and variety of the food it serves.

“Although the food is all Mexican, we still like to be different,” Cervantes said. “When you come here, you’re going to find some ingredients that really stand out compared to other places. Some of our standout dishes come straight from my mom’s recipe and what we do is interesting. With our cooking, you’ll find lots of things not usually found in other Mexican restaurants.

Cervantes has no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.

“My mother recently asked me how long I plan to keep the Chilangos,” Cervantes said. I told him that I felt like a boxer doing the thirteen rounds in the ring. I basically said I do it for passion, just like a fighter, and I’m a fighter who never gives up.

Leo Cervantes, owner of Chilangos in Highlands on May 18, 2022.


Owner: Leo Cervantes

Location: 272 Bay Avenue, Highlands

Call: 732-708-0505


Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; noon to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday

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