When San Francisco’s assortment of hyper-local restaurants serving fried chicken and wood-fired pizza starts to get, oh, just a tad monotonous, you can always go to quirky, inventive Chino for a change of pace.
The restaurant is far beyond the norm. Owned by Joe Hargraves (of Tacolicious), Chino’s name is an allusion to a not-so-respectful Mexican word for “Chinese.”
It’s apt, for an Asian fusion restaurant that cheekily calls its food “Chinese-y” and with irreverent kitchen workers who toy with the food they were brought up with: the chef de cuisine is Filipino-American, the sous chef is Korean-American, the dumpling person is Shanghainese, and the bartender is Chinese-American.
The result is one of the most interesting menus in The City.
Homage needs to be paid to the chicken wings, which had finesse. The hormone-free chicken was flavorful, sticky and light, with its saliva-inducing aroma of fish sauce, lashings of spice and a good dash of lime.
The lumpia, instead of being stuffed by the typical pork-carrot filling, was filled with caldereta, a traditional Filipino stew, cooked until dry enough to be fried in the usual egg-wrap. It was far from the lumpia typically found in the Bay Area, but only a few steps away from the flavors of Filipino home cooking. Still, I’ve never seen it in Filipino home cooking myself.
The half-steamed bun, half-taco mishmash “bao de chicharon” was a sweet pillow of dough enveloping tender-crisp and sticky pork belly and familiar Mexican fixings. They were deceptively complex, as multitudes of texture and flavor were packed into the small bites.
Rice cakes, common enough in local dumpling houses, got a new spin at Chino, where they’re fried in sesame oil until they puff and achieve crispy edges and toasty, nutty notes, then tossed in a rich, boldly salty and garlicky braise of greens.
Other revelations were at the bar, where the equation of boba plus fruity slushy cocktail was a winning one. In mine, the boba were filled with mango juice. They exploded like small fruit bombs within the tide of strawberry and gin slush melting in my mouth.
“Why has no one ever thought of this before?” I thought, alcohol-addled. I won’t be surprised if the cocktails spark a trend.
With such an experimental kitchen, there are bound to be missteps. The cucumbers in the cucumber salad were lightly pulverized, which gave the dressing a heavy, silky mouthfeel, but I didn’t find that twist particularly effective.
The pork soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, kept shattering in my spoon. And the matcha soft serve ice cream with Fruity Pebbles was a nice idea, but I found the contrasting flavors didn’t harmonize.
With down-to-earth servers, candy-colored paper lanterns, and hundreds of café lights hung to dizzying effect, the vibe is party-hardy, not hoity-toity. The dishes are well-suited for sharing, and two make a meal for one or a snack for two.
Meals end with fortune cookies with pop lyrics inside. The fortunes come across cryptic and cheesy — “There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung”? Lennon is rolling in his grave — but they encapsulate everything to love or hate about Chino. It’s goofy, inspired, and at times, well, kinda weird.
But it’s different — refreshingly, courageously different — and it’s exciting to see a restaurant be this imaginative and so lighthearted at the same time.
Location: 3198 16th St. (at Guerrero Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 552-5771, http://chinosf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily
Price range: $4 to $11
Recommended dishes: Nick Balla’s Dope Ass Japan-O-Mission Wings ($9), Mrs. Arcalas’ Family Lumpia ($7), Spicy Porkey Rice Cakes ($7).
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major