Once upon a time, a decade and a half ago, Chino Latino was THE restaurant. I mean, it was cray-zay. That shimmering golden awning (with no signage!), the fusion concept (Chinese? Mexican?). What the hell was a Hot Zone?
I even heard a story about a construction worker whistling at a server during their big training session, and it turned out to be a drag queen and he wound up feeling all funny about himself. They had drag queens for servers! Remember that this was 15 years ago, in Minnesota, when we didn't have much of a dining scene to speak of yet. This was like something out of New York City. And then time marched on.
We got older and jaded and now we've got Ferris wheels upon which to take our evening repast and computer machines in our pockets that let us find a date in 15 seconds, and nothing really surprises us anymore and it surely takes a lot more to impress.
We grew wary of the Chino Latino brand of cray-zay, and dishes like "Belafonte's Banana Boat Chicken" could not satisfy anyone who had, by this time, eaten so much street food it was as familiar as Cheerios.
But! We are very happy to report that Chino has a fresh new sense of adventure, this time for a savvy new generation that has little interest in passion-fruit-doused chicken breast.
Chino chef Tyge Nelson and executive consulting chef Tim McKee recently returned from an epic eating tour of Asia, where they ate their way through the markets, street vendors, and restaurants of China, Vietnam, and Thailand, arriving back in Minneapolis with plenty of inspiration quite literally under their belts.
"It actually got to be pretty uncomfortable," says Nelson, of the number of meals and amount of food they were tasked with eating daily, you know, for research.
"But I think Chino is getting its sense of adventure back, and that is what Chino should be for," McKee told me.
Boy, are they ever! And now with added crisp, crunch, greens, and spice!
A few of the greatest hits, thus far:
Question: Why is it so common to gnaw on a chicken wing that Buffalo Wild Wings sells 11 million of the things on Super Bowl Sunday alone, but we turn our noses up at the feet? At Chino, "Phoenix Claws" taste a little like kicked-up Buffalo wings (well, extremely kicked-up) with dried chiles, Szechuan peppercorn, sesame, ginger, and black soy. They're a little crispy, a little fatty, and the absolutely perfect thing to nibble while slugging back a bunch of beers. Just watch out for toenails.
With the likable, universal appeal of Wonderbread, squishy as marshmallows but more interesting and just the perfect vehicle for pork belly, steam buns, or bao, are a Taiwanese delight that you can't get just anywhere around here, and every time you get one you always wonder why not? Get just that at Chino with spiced-up Kewpie mayo, and pretty little wisps of jalapeño and cilantro for bite. McKee tells me there's a place in Hong Kong that sells all kinds of bao with burgers tucked inside. We're holding our breath for that.
In Minnesota, we have been all too indoctrinated to eat only what's in front of us, not to touch anyone else's food, and to be quiet and polite at the dinner table, and that's just sad, because doing the opposite of this is the very best way to eat. Thai bone-in, crispy fish is another of those drinking snacks that calls for convivial eating and drinking, where you throw a bunch of snacks and beers on the table and everyone grabs stuff over each other's plates and fights for the best bits and swigs another beer and tells a bawdy joke and sucks the meat off the bones. This fish is a good place to start unraveling all your grandma's bad advice, and don't forget to slurp up the delectable hot and sour broth seasoned with tamarind and fish sauce.
A table groaning with larb, curry, and fish is as fragrant as it is tasty, and when getting a whiff, the adventure starts to feel really real, like a long vacation and that moment when you finally grow balls enough to get off the beaten path. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai cooking can jar us out of our safety net in just this way, thanks to its aggressive use of spice, but also funk and acid and umami, and it's at its best when shoving aside convention and taking a chance on the smelly stuff.
Cocktails at Chino are also getting a makeover, like a "Tom Yum," which is strangely, delightfully, deliciously like sipping the famous Thai coconut-galangal soup, but sweeter and more refreshing, like it lost the milkiness and instead met a spoonful of Tang. And there's a pomegranate-cucumber margarita that's like sitting on a beach in Mexico with a bowl of your grandpa's refrigerator pickles. The best of all worlds. And! And! Bubble tea champagne -- flutes of bubbly strewn with tapioca pearls and a fat straw for inhaling them.
Tapioca pearl champagne to chicken feet: There's a full spectrum of exploration to be had, whether you're a bachelorette with a veil tacked to your bun, a courageous linebacker, or a combination of the two. And not to worry: All your old Chino favorites are still available.
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