The Chino Syndrome
2916 Hennepin Ave. S. Mpls.; (612) 824-7878
Hours: Monday-Thursday 4:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; Friday 4:30 p.m.-2:00 a.m.; Saturday 11:00 a.m.-2:00 a.m.; Sunday 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m.
I dare you to drink at Chino Latino and not get drunk. In fact, I double-dare you, I triple-dog-dare you. It can't be done, it defies the laws of physics, physiology, anthropology. For proof, witness my own strenuous efforts.
On my first visit to the stunning new bi-level Uptown bar and restaurant, I put the name of my party on the list at the door, then repaired to the bar to try some of the signature "hot zone cocktails," figuring that they were a significant part of the Chino shtickino. I settled in at one of the high tables that ring the open area above the dining room and ordered a Shanghai Express ($6.75)--a tall, delicious, fruity drink that comes in a curvy glass topped with an umbrella and a plastic animal.
So I'm sipping my drink and admiring the gorgeous surroundings--the shimmering wall of red votive candles, the glamorous backlit bar, the tables like tie-dyed op-art targets, the endless opportunities for people-scoping, er, watching. And everything looks marvelous, and I feel like I've been magically transported to Las Vegas or maybe the set of some red-toned Blade Runner sequel. To celebrate, I order a golden, citrusy Kama Sutra Mama ($6.50). Soon I collect another paper umbrella, another plastic animal, and, somehow, the phone number of a stranger with a neck like an oak stump.
On my next visit I resolve to stay the hell away from signature cocktails and repair to the bar to try instead a signature martini. I opt for an Uncle Phô ($6.50), a variation on a Cosmopolitan made with Absolut Citron, fresh watermelon juice, and lime juice. Virtuous, I resolve not to drink the whole oversize thing and instead nurse it halfway down to a warm puddle. But alas, my kind, considerate server notices and offers to remove the drink from my bill and replace it with another. Well, far be it from me to obstruct quality service, so I decide to try the margarita ($6.50). I mean, a margarita. What is a margarita to me? A little itsy-bitsy margarita? But of course, Chino Latino's margarita comes in a pint glass, and presto-change-o, I'm receiving feedback from a panel in the coed sink area as to whether I am more devastating in pink lip gloss or red lipstick.
Visit three: I endeavor to have one, and only one, selection from the comprehensive list of "hot zone" beers. As my waitress advises me that they are out of my first choice--Cuban-recipe, Miami-made Hatuey ($3.75)--I scan the list for another rarity, settling on Japanese Yebisu ($5.75). The waitress hands me a giant bottle of malt liquor, and scant minutes later the woman next to me on the banquette in the tuffet bar is clutching my knee and chattering on about how she's really too old to be there, but they let her in anyway, and ever since her divorce she's never known what to wear. And I don't mind one bit. For I'm here to report that waiting for a table at Chino Latino is about four times as entertaining as eating an entire meal at nearly any other restaurant in town. If you haven't been yet, speed yourself to the most artful bit of interior theater to hit town since--well, since I've been on this beat.
And this isn't just the alcohol talking. I've been back to Chino Latino a number of times, sometimes actually skipping the booze and contenting myself with one of the excellent teas--$2.50 for a little cast-iron pot, $4.50 for a big one--and I've sampled widely from a menu composed mostly of items from the equatorial regions of Asia, Central America, and South America.
And I am impressed. So impressed, I'm almost unnerved: Not only do they have breathtaking architecture and design, an excellent tea selection, an exemplary tequila list, fine rums, great beers, an admirable sake list, a better wine list than I would ever have expected, reasonable prices, late hours, and good service, but the food ain't bad either: In a word, this is that rarest of commodities, a fun destination restaurant. Is there something weird in those drinks besides plastic animals?
A few of the dishes I had really were excellent--most notably the Acapulco salmon ceviche ($9), a toss of cubes of salmon briefly cooked in lime juice and combined with diced red onions, diced tomato, slices of green olive, cilantro, and a bit of fresh jalapeño. The combination was salty, spicy, and fresh, and the salmon was buttery in the way only the freshest fish is: It was a magnificent dish, and the portion was large enough for six people to share comfortably as an appetizer. Another appetizer, the tuna tataki ($9)--thin slices of seared red tuna with a bit of soy-sesame-oil dressing and a nest of shredded kaiware (radish shoots)--was equally impressive, as were the coconut-curry mussels ($9), a generous heap of perfectly done mollusks served in a salty, spicy, creamy coconut broth brightened with specks of cilantro.
I was not as enthralled by a few other items in the category Chino calls "little dishes to share": Chinese barbecued ribs ($7) were merely sweet and greasy, the crystal fish and crab dumplings ($5) tasted as pale as they looked, and the crab spring rolls ($6.50) weren't as good as those served at any of the better Vietnamese restaurants in town--though when our server noticed that we weren't devouring them she whisked them off the table and off our bill.
In fact, on nearly every visit, I witnessed some extraordinary effort on the part of the service staff, whether it involved dragging together tuffets for a group in the bar, helping refine a menu for an unsure first-timer, securing a free dessert for a birthday party, or even rounding up handfuls of drink-topper animals for bored children. It's a strategy carried over from Buca, the other restaurant concept of local mini-empire Parasole Holdings.
Buca's legacy is also apparent in the enormous portions, found especially in the "bigger dishes to share" section of the menu. My absolute favorite was the HOFO duck ($26)--HOFO is a meat-buying term meaning head-on, feet-on, and as promised you get a wholly whole marinated roast duck that is as beautifully rich and fragrant as spice cake. The bird is served in a modified Peking style, with fresh sliced cucumbers, red bell peppers, scallions, hoisin sauce, and a basket of plump steamed rice-dough buns. You can carve the meat with an enormous knife, then assemble little roll-ups of hoisin sauce, duck, and vegetables in the buns--it's wonderful, and better than any Peking duck I've had in Minneapolis.
The other extraordinary big dish I tried was the carne asada à la moreliana ($24), two banana-leaf-wrapped packets of spicy meat--soft beef barbacoa and cinnamon-scented chicken tinga--served with three salsas (sharp tomatillo, sweet mango, and chunky pico de gallo) as well as guacamole, lettuce dressed in a peppery vinaigrette, cilantro, diced onions, queso fresco, lime, black beans, and a container of tortillas, all artfully presented so that diners can assemble tacos. Yes, tacos.
And here a lesson lies: When I return to Chino Latino, I'll stick to dishes that rely more on smart recipes, fresh ingredients, and at-the-table assembly than on coordinated line cooks, because serving complicated hot dishes to temperature seems to be the one thing beyond Chino Latino's ability. Montego Bay jerk chicken ($19) was greasy and somewhat bland, without the crusty skin of good jerk chicken--and it always arrived too cold. Phuket fried noodles ($13), a version of pad thai, were gummy and not nearly zesty enough. And the one dish to absolutely miss was the Philippine paella ($29), a combination of undercooked rice and tough, uninspiring chicken, chorizo, and seafood.
On the upside, even disappointment at Chino Latino isn't all that painful, given how inexpensive the place is: Most of the entrées comfortably feed four people, and it's quite easy to spend less than $15 a person for a generous dinner. Which brings me to my final quibble: The place has come to be absolutely jam-packed with the local equivalent of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, especially on weekends. It's gotten so bad that I briefly toyed with the idea of writing this whole piece as a warning--Uptown, a lousy place to eat, a worse place to park--just to try to scare off some of the crowds.
But then I remembered that waiting for a table at Chino Latino is half the fun--and if you get claustrophobic, here's a little trick. They serve the full menu in the bar, and the quickest way to make room in a group of diamond-lane cowboys is to order a duck with its head on. Clears 'em right out.
D'AMICO TO MINNEAPOLIS: SPEAK UP! Got a call from Bill Summerville, the new general manager of D'Amico Cucina, and he was all wound up. He feels like there's a conspiracy against the upscale, flagship restaurant of the D'Amico empire, a conspiracy that has people sitting at tables they don't want, then stewing about it all night and possibly for months, and eventually writing hurt letters or snotty reviews. (Ahem.) Please, begged Summerville, don't take a table you don't like! "We thank people who communicate their displeasure with the experience," he insisted. "It helps us." He then defined what the Cucina people call their "regions": To the far west is the "West Room"; the main area is the "Upper Room"; the little, gorgeous rustic space to the back is the "Wine Room" (the table inside was once a maharajah's bed, seats up to 12, and requires an extra $150 room-rental fee). And what I've always called "the pit," "the hole," or "nether-Cucina" is known as "The Marble." To my great surprise, Summerville said that lots of people consider this the choicest spot in the house because--what do you know--it's so cozy. Summerville also said that the restaurant plans a décor face-lift in the next year, so if you have suggestions, drop them a line at 100 N. Sixth St., Mpls., 55401, (612) 338-2401. My tip: Lose that Valley Girl pink-marbleized salt-and-pepper china--it's, like, so over.
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