Chino's Brings Back Old School Street Food and Tiki Drinks

By: 
Cody Bay

Long before James Beard Award-winning chefs began taking it to the streets, food trucks were feeding L.A. on the fast and cheap for decades, with immigrants serving primarily Mexican staples like tacos, tinga and offal, or the classics of Asia: steamed buns, fried noodles and boiled peanuts.

It's the stuff that L.A. natives Mari and Walter Lee grew up on. With both Mexican and Chinese parents between them, plus a lifelong passion for home cooking in unpretentious street food style, the husband-and-wife team have joined forces with bartender extraordinaire Veronika Groth to take the plunge into their dream of opening their own restaurant, Chino's, which opened over the weekend.

“Most of the food we're doing can be found at the Taiwanese night markets,” says Mari, who quit her job as an environmental consultant four weeks ago to run the front of the house.

Although L.A. (like everywhere else) is now crawling with new trucks serving everything from Korean tacos to vegan fare, she says, “for Chino's, the street food we refer to is kind of a holdover from the [old] food truck days.”

Armed with a brand-spankin' new law degree and zero desire to be a lawyer, Walter is the man in kitchen, drawing on his parents' experience running everything from Chinese restaurants to American diners after moving to the U.S. Most of Walter's menu leans toward the small and portable, deliverable by paper tray and costing less than $10.

There's Zha Jiang Mein noodles with sweet bean sauce, hot bean paste and minced pork; Tinga tacos with braised pork and chorizo; a Sweet and Sour Fish grilled and served whole; and Spicy Chicken Wings with a fish sauce garlic glaze that have drawn some pretty emphatic “Mmms!” at recent preview parties. And the centerpiece Gua Bao, pork belly in a steamed bun with pickled mustard greens, cilantro and crushed sweet peanuts (also available with fried tofu), deliciously warrants the issuing of a trend alert.

There's also plenty here for veterans of ethnic street food and/or the adventurous: the Menudo de Chino offal stew; “Blood & Guts,” which is exactly what it says it is; Pig Ear Salad with scallions, garlic and cilantro; and hard-boiled eggs flavored with anise and soy. The quintessential L.A. street food—the "so-good-it's-illegal" bacon-wrapped hot dog, which has been banned by the L.A. health department—is assured to be making an appearance on the menu in the near future.

The Lees' original plan was in fact to start a mobile operation, but the massive explosion of such eateries around the country has made suitable trucks so difficult and expensive to come by, Mari says, it actually cost them about the same to go bricks and mortar in the Pike/Pine corridor, where they took over a former sushi restaurant and played up the industrial vibe of the space with exposed earthquake retrofitting and lots of cheeky L.A. ghetto references, including a large street mural greeting guests at the entryway.

Most importantly, however, the “real restaurant” model enabled the Lees to bring in the talents of the fabulous Veronika Groth, bringing more of a cocktail-focused “bar with good food” vibe to whole operation.

Having wooed her away from the bar at Poppy (which had earlier wooed her away from Oliver's Twist), Groth is going to town on the downtrodden family of tiki cocktails to give them a new life.

“Going back to the original recipes they were really good cocktails, but it kind of got lost in translation during the '50s when everything got really cheesy,” Groth says.

She is giving the boot to the canned juices and boozy, sugary excesses tropical drinks have been maligned for and instead is making her own fresh juices, orgeats and grenadines in-house, enhancing the flavors of the alcohol with subtle sweetness and well-crafted complexity of flavors to compliment the spices in the food.

The cocktail menu will change weekly, featuring eight tiki drinks and eight “classic cocktails with a twist.” I tried one of each: the Singapore Sling ($12), with gin, cherry heering, orange curcao, benedictine, fresh pineapple, lime and bitters; and the Rye Old Fashioned ($8), with bitters and a house-made 5-spice muscovado cube. It's not what I'm normally used to washing my street taco down with, but if I could all the time, I certainly would.

Chino's
1024 E Pike St.
Open 5 p.m.- midnight Sunday-Thursday
5 p.m. - 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
ChinosSeattle.com