Chino Latino is the Minneapolis restaurant that doctrinaire high-end foodies love to hate. It’s big — $7 million worth of business last year, and a seating capacity of 415. It’s loud — every night’s a party, and weekends are Carnaval. And it’s everything a place like Meritage or Craftsman isn’t — its menu is geographically boundless, it does huge volume, and it serves silly drinks. The Crack Ho Mojito wouldn’t work at Figlio, kitty corner to Chino and also owned by Parasole; it sure as hell wouldn’t fly at Lucia’s, down the block.
When Beard Award-nominated Chef Stewart Woodman of Heidi’s hailed Chino’s #1 “fine dining” ranking on Urbanspoon as a sign of an ongoing gastronomic apocalypse, he spoke for a whole bloc of folks who would rather eat a week-old egg McMuffin than cross Chino’s lintel.
The thing is — and this isn’t a trivial observation — there’s a reason beyond happy hour specials that Chino does strong business year after year. There’s a freewheeling and passionate cross-cultural conversation in the kitchen that’s reflected in the menu, which is studded with the hot (the Ring of Fire sushi roll, Bang Bang Firecracker Wings), the festive (roast suckling pig, a Philippine paella) and the unusual (Lamma Island salty squid, guinea pig). The menu’s mix is a fascinating, ever-changing, overwhelming international mashup, a blend of the authentic, the adapted, the bastardized, the familiar, and the exotic. The back of the house staff keeps the bill of fare in motion.
“One of my executive sous-chefs is from Hong Kong; he moved here when he was a teenager and worked in every Asian restaurant in town,” says Noah Barton, Chino’s general manager and, before that, its long-serving executive chef. “One of my sous chefs — Chester [Dyrud] — grew up in Brazil for half the time, half the time here… another one of my sous chefs grew up in Oaxaca, most of my staff is either Mexican or Ecuadoran, so there’s a lot of authenticity that I can’t make up, that I draw from those guys.”
Barton has been a mainstay at the restaurant since its opening nearly 10 years ago, hired after doing stints in Southern California and Seattle, where he cooked Latin, Caribbean and Asian foods at various restaurants. Recipes that were home-cooking favorites for Chino’s sous chefs and their families become menu mainstays via the collaboration of Barton, who grew up in Fergus Falls and went to high school in Minneapolis.
The decade-old origins of Chino Latino go back to the international travels of Phil Roberts of the Parasole restaurant group, which owns Chino as well as Salut, Figlio, Manny’s, Muffaletta and others. Roberts, momentarily weary of French and Italian food, saw the opportunity to introduce a mix of Asian and Latin food — on a big scale — to the Twin Cities.
“If you look at the food of Asia and Latin America, there are a lot of common threads between them,” says Barton. “Chilis [the peppers] are a really obvious one. Chile de Arbol, which we use in Latin food, is also used in Asian food. Cilantro’s another obvious one. It’s used fresh in Southeast Asia, fresh in Latin America, and the dried spice is used in China. They use that in Chinese food, Korean food, and other northern countries.”
The topic prompts Barton to fetch from the kitchen a five gallon bucket full of dried red chilis, which he identifies as guajillos. It’s a rustic ingredient, the hay-like smell of which Barton compares to an old trailer at his grandparents’ farm.
“It’s got a very slight heat to it — it’s not a spicy chili, by any means,” he says. “It’s got a little bit of sweetness to it, and a little bit of that mustiness, as well.”
Once it’s seeded, the chili is toasted in a dry pan to remove its bitterness, soaked and boiled; combined with some queso fresco and chicken, it’s a key player in the plate of beautifully balanced tacos that Barton brings to the table.
The eclectic nature of Chino’s menu and ingredients is both a liability — diners are as likely to get lost as they are to find the entree of their dreams — and an asset. Small ticket items such as tacos and tortas anchor the bar-food/happy hour trade that keeps Chino on diners’ radar in even tough times. But Barton says that the ongoing recession has begun to take a bite of his business.
“We’re feeling it in ways we didn’t before,” he says. “When the stock market fell apart, a lot of the other restaurants in our company were feeling it and we felt it a little bit less. And now that layoffs are going on like crazy, we’re feeling it a little more.”
Chino’s guests skew young, and while falling stocks didn’t have a noticeable impact on their dining habits, the layoffs that followed certainly did.
“With the recession hitting, we’re seeing a lot of people either getting laid off or worrying about their jobs,” says Barton. “If you look at the unemployment rate, as of last month for the general population it was 7, 7.5 percent. For people 29 and under, it was 11 percent, and that’s our target market. That’s who’s feeling it.”
It’s likely that Barton — despite being part of a larger restaurant chain — will have the freedom to pivot to address the crisis. He credits Parasole for a relatively hands-off management style.
“One of the things about Parasole — if I’m doing my job, and we’re making money and bringing people in, they don’t breathe down my neck,” Barton says.
The freedom isn’t boundless, of course — Barton says creative give-and-take is part of the deal.
“One of the most valuable things that my predecessor [Michael Larson] (who’s now my boss) taught me was: It’s my job to protect the restaurant from the corporate office,” Barton says. “There are things that don’t fit your concept.”
The Chino concept, then, is both simple and expansive: street food from the hot zones, with an emphasis on small plates, sharable platters, theater and exotic flavors — sometimes fit to the Western palate, sometimes remarkably undiluted.
Chino’s use of the Szechuan Peppercorn — not related to black pepper or chili peppers, but a tiny fruit of an entirely different species — is emblematic of its approach.
“They’re not peppercorns in the traditional sense of the word,” says Barton. “They’ve got a very distinctive flavor, and the Chinese describe it as kind of hot and numbing. When you eat them, you can get a tingle on your lips and tongue from eating them. There’s kind of a minty flavor to them, too. You get that heat, but you get a different kind of depth than you’d get from normal peppercorns.”
The peppercorns give the restaurant’s Salt & Pepper Shrimp an intense, lively kick of deep flavor. The shell-on appetizers arrive in a paper bag and are eaten according to a little ritual: dip ’em (in the accompanying sesame vinaigrette), suck ’em, peel ’em, eat ’em.
“If you get it wrong you’ll probably know,” says Barton.
The cooked-in-shell approach to shrimp makes for a comically involved unwrapping procedure, finger-lickingly dirty hands and a much richer shrimp flavor. As appetizers go, they’re bangingly flavorful and a totally involved experience; it’s just critical to ensure you don’t suck a shrimp that a fellow diner’s already gotten to.
“I think I already sucked that one,” says Barton, deadpan, to this writer.
God dammit. Water is an obvious response, and Chino’s got a concept-specific take on that, too — tap water served in custom screen-printed glass jugs.
“I hate it when I walk through the dining room and someone’s just had something spicy, and they’re like: ‘I want a water,'” says Noah. “No matter how good you are as a server, you’re not going to be there every time.”
Thus the jugs. Strikingly whimsical, they’re as in tune with their surroundings as Barton is. “We’re pretty in your face,” he reflects. In a nutshell, that’s the philosophy that has rocked boats and moved plates for the better part of a decade.