LOWER SOUTH PROVIDENCE – Late at night, Broad Street throbs with music, chatter and the hum of generators as lines form outside the glowing windows of chimi trucks. People who've just gotten off work – or spent the evening at a nightclub – stand on the sidewalk eagerly peeling open foil wrappers.
It's a scene that was playing out long before food trucks became trendy, Marta Martinez pointed out during a recent tour of the neighborhood.
Martinez, executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts, routinely leads what she calls “barrio tours” – walking tours that showcase the culture and history of South Providence. One tour at the end of August serves as an introduction to chimi trucks.
What is a chimi?
Chimis are a traditional Dominican street food. The name comes from "chimichurri," which refers to a sauce made from mayonnaise and ketchup, not the Argentinian condiment made with chopped herbs and oil. (Chimis can also be found in Argentina, but the mayo-ketchup blend is known as "salsa golf" there.)
A typical chimi is a hamburger made with seasoned ground beef topped with shredded cabbage and, of course, chimi sauce. It's typically served on pan de agua, a roll that resembles a small French baguette. Each vendor has a slightly different recipe, and you can also get chimis made with chicken or pork.
Chimi trucks have traditionally been a way for Dominican immigrants to start their own businesses, Martinez said. Other chimi truck owners often help them get started – taking them to Providence City Hall and showing them how to get a license, and helping them find a truck to buy.
"They help their own," she said, noting that the owners have even formed their own chimi truck association.
When and where to look for chimi trucks
The first chimi truck opened in Providence in 1992, Martinez said. Ramon "Johnny" Morales, the owner of Johnny's Chimi Place, is often considered the pioneer. But actually, Martinez said, it was Morales' sister who started the first chimi truck. He later followed her from New York to Rhode Island, and began running the truck with her.
At one point, Martinez counted 15 chimi trucks that regularly parked along Broad Street. But the number has been lower since the pandemic took its toll, she said.
The remaining chimi trucks can typically be found on the stretch of lower Broad Street between Lexington Avenue and Jilson Street. Johnny's is now based out of a permanent trailer near the corner of Broad and Pennsylvania Avenue. Nearby, a sign warns, "Chimi Truck Parking Only 6 p.m.–2 a.m."
"They became so recognized and such a thriving business that the city put up signs saying you can't park here," Martinez told the tour group.
The chimi trucks begin parking on Broad Street around sunset – meaning they arrive earlier in winter than summer, Martinez pointed out. And they stay open until 2 a.m., much later than most restaurants.
"It’s very festive," Martinez said.
How Broad Street became the center of the Latino community
To tell the story of the chimi trucks, Martinez first has to tell the story of the neighborhood.
What we know today as Broad Street was once part of the Pequot Trail, which indigenous people used to travel between South County and the Blackstone Valley, she explained at the start of the tour.
Once white settlers showed up, farms began replacing unspoiled forests. Lower South Providence was once considered a place where the wealthy lived, but the 1850s ushered in an age of industrialization.
Factories began popping up nearby, and the area saw an influx of working-class Irish and Russian Jewish immigrants. (Many of the large, stately homes in the area were built for people who worked in management roles at Gorham Silver, while workers lived in triple-deckers, Martinez said.)
The arrival of electric trolleys in the late 19th century made the neighborhood popular with middle-class families, who could take advantage of convenient access to Providence's still-thriving downtown. But things took a nosedive in the first half of the 20th century with the advent of the automobile.
"That totally changed everything," Martinez said. "They needed more street parking, they paved everything, they widened the roads ..."
Local businesses suffered because people could drive out to the suburbs and shop at a mall, Martinez said, and longtime residents started to move away. The construction of Interstate 95 literally split the neighborhood in two. But around the same time, Latino immigrants began moving in.
Martinez traces the community's roots back to Josefina Rosario, a Dominican immigrant known as "Doña Fefa," and her husband, Tony, who was Puerto Rican. The couple had been living in New York City and came to Rhode Island in the 1950s to work at a restaurant. It failed, but they decided to stay.
The couple had tried to find a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Providence but were told there wasn’t one. After hunting around, they decided to open Fefa's Market on Broad Street across from the entrance to Roger Williams Park.
"They get to this corner and she asked Tony to pull over," Martinez said. "What caught her attention was the park. She hadn’t seen green space in what felt like forever. She said to Tony, 'Aquí me quedo' – this is where I will stay."
The couple missed foods like plantains and yucca, so they made routine trips down to New York, driving a blue station wagon with wood paneling.
"They told their friends all about Rhode Island, this place they called paradise – paraiso," Martinez said. Intrigued, some of those friends ended up following them.
Today, Fefa's Market is gone, but Broad Street is lined with bodegas, Dominican bakeries and, of course, chimi trucks.
During the tour, Martinez stops so that the group can sample fresh-cut mango and quenepas (a fruit rarely found in the United States that resembles a lime crossed with a lychee) at El Chiki Fruta, a fruit stand near the I-95 overpass. After chimis and passionfruit juice at Johnny's, the next stop is Ada's Creations for flan and pudin de pan, a Dominican bread pudding.
"The way South Providence looks today is because of Tony and Josefina," Martinez said.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: What are chimi trucks? The story behind the Dominican street food