UPDATE: This restaurant closed in early November 2015.
The story: The people who made tacos hip with their Tacolicious restaurants now want to do the same with Chinese food, specifically Taiwanese-style street food through the restaurant Chino. (Note: The name officially has the Spanish-style punctuation where an exclamation point is seen first and last, so the name should be Chino!, a nod to their Mexican cuisine roots. But for the longest time I thought their proposed name was iChino because of the upside down exclamation mark used in their graphic. LOL)
Why I went: I had tried some of Chino’s food when it had a stand at the Saturday Ferry Building Farmers Market while the restaurant (in the former Andalu space in the Mission) was being built out, but it’s totally different now with a new executive chef Telmo Faria working with restauranteur Joe Hargrave and his partners. So I had planned to check out the place when I got a call from my friend Carolyn of FoodGal fame who asked if I wanted to join her for dinner (the meal was comped by the restaurant, which happens when one dines with Carolyn).
The vibe: From the colorful paper lanterns to the wall of novelty toys near the entrance, fun is the main theme for the restaurant. The casual atmosphere feels like you’re at a summer backyard party, especially with the rows of string lights on the ceiling.
The booze: A nice collection of specialty cocktails coming from the large bar, and wine and beer. I actually skipped the alcohol on this night, though, because I wanted to focus more on the food.
The menu: Broken into four categories: “Snacky Whacky;” dumplings and more; noodles, rice and soup; and sides, the food is influenced by the chefs trip to Taiwan where they were inspired by various street food, but you’ll also seen influences from all over Asia, including Korean, Japanese and Filipino, a reflection of the backgrounds of the chefs working in the kitchen. For the Shanghai-style soup dumplings, known as xiao lung baos, they went for authenticity by hiring Leo Gan to lead the dumpling-making team. (Gan previously worked with the legendary Cecilia Chiang at the now-defunct Mandarin.) Chef Faria, though, made it a point to say that the food they’re trying to achieve at Chino is not authentic Chinese food but instead inspired by it, though they’re not officially calling it fusion. It’s the same philosophy they took with Mexican food at Tacolicious, which means a lot of playing with traditional ingredients presented in new ways.
My favorite dish: Carolyn ordered a variety of foods, like the xiao lung bao (or XLB as it’s noted on the menu for $9.75) and chicken wings ($9.75 and called “Nick Balla’s Dope Ass Japan-o-Mission Wings” on the menu in honor of the chef at Tartine who once cooked Japanese food), and the chef sent a few additional dishes. I found my favorite dishes were the creative ones and not-so-traditional, so I loved the bao de chicharon ($8), a play on Peking duck steamed buns but stuffed with taco-inspired ingredients such as avocado salsa. The star of the bun is the pork belly that includes a few crunchy chicharon bits.
Insider tip: Be sure to end your meal with the soft-serve matcha ice cream ($7). I’m a fan of matcha (Japanese green tea) and the flavors come off well in the soft-serve Strauss Family cream, colorfully decorated with fruity pebbles cereal, fitting the fun theme of the restaurant.
The last bite: While the menu tries not to be traditional, some of the dishes come to the table looking very Chinese, such as the XLB and pork noodles ($8) we ordered. I found those classic-looking dishes good but nothing inspiring, and had more fun trying dishes when the chef firmly broke the mold, such as the chicharon buns and Korean-inspired “porkey rice cakes” ($8), where traditional rice cake medallions are served here on the golden crispy side like pan-fried gnocchi. Dishes like that is when Chino’s mashup of Asian food really shines.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
The deets: Chino, 3198 16th St. (at Guerrero), San Francisco. PH: 415.552.5771. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Reservations accepted only for large parties of six or more. Major credit cards accepted. chinosf.com
You can read Carolyn’s take on the restaurant on her blog.
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