By CJ JUNTEREAL
To be perfectly honest, it took eight months and an invitation from someone I have difficulty refusing before I ate in Chino MNL. I have heard a lot of conflicting information—Japanese restaurant, Mexican restaurant, more like a bar, fusion, not fusion, expensive, you’ll leave hungry, fancy food, neighborhood place—and decided I would give it time to settle down. Despite the good things I had read about Chino in Hong Kong, Chino in Manila sounded like it still needed to find its place in the sun. I should have remembered that perceptions don’t always hold truth when it comes to the food world.
Chino in Hong Kong is five years old, and is the “baby” of Filipino American chef Erik Idos and his partner, pastry chef Tracy Wei. Idos, who grew up in a Los Angeles neighborhood surrounded by Mexican food, worked with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa for 15 years, ending up as Executive Chef of Nobu Intercontinental Hong Kong. He could have opened a Japanese restaurant, but he opened Chino instead. “When we decided to open a restaurant, there wasn’t any good Mexican food in Hong Kong,” Wei explains. “We were always craving for Mexican, so every Sunday we would go to Nobu with friends for brunch and Erik would make us Mexican food using Japanese ingredients and Japanese technique. He’d make us fish tacos, but use sea bass tempura-style.”
When he was given the chance to create his own brand, Idos decided to do Japanese-Mexican. “He’s not trying to do crazy, cheap fusion; the combination of all the different ingredients together just meshed, and really made sense,” Wei explains. As for the restaurant’s vaguely Chinese-sounding name, Wei says that the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Nobu’s kitchens called Idos “Chino” because there is no specific Spanish word for Filipino. “Chino” is the term used to refer to anyone Asian.
On its website, Chino in Hong Kong is described as “a modern Mexican style restaurant inspired by Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques.” When they opened their Manila “baby,” Idos and Wei remained faithful to what Chino Hong Kong was so that people who knew them from there wouldn’t wonder at the change. That meant sticking to their menu, and sourcing ingredients that were either imported or local and delivered fresh daily. It also meant a “no reservations” rule and dinner service only.
Eight months later, Wei admits that it hasn’t been easy. “In Hong Kong we had the upper hand. We lived there, and we already knew the people and the market. We thought that opening in Manila would be tough, but that it would still work. We realize now that we have to work a little more, promote a little more.” The couple split their time between Hong Kong and Manila, although Wei is currently based here to manage the restaurant.
They’ve adjusted somewhat to local dining preferences—lowering prices while still retaining the quality of the dishes, finally opening for lunch and Sunday brunch, taking reservations, and adding new dishes to the menu. “We’re supposed to be a neighborhood restaurant but we weren’t able to price it that way in the beginning,” Wei acknowledges.
The new dishes have the easy sophistication and carefully crafted layers of flavor that are Idos’ culinary style, and highlight his talent for using local produce. Among these are two stellar starters labeled simply Soft Shell Shrimp/Pickled Watermelon and Tuna Tataki/Avocado/Salsa Veracruz. The soft shell shrimp are flown in daily from Aklan in extremely limited quantities. Breaded and deep-fried, they are served on top of the ponzu-pickled watermelon, and garnished with thin slivers of red onion. Balancing sweet, tart, and crisp, it is the perfect summer dish and is a must order if stocks are available. The salsa Veracruz dolloped onto the Tuna Tataki is a classic that combines capers, olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and chili peppers in a fusion of Spanish and Mexican ingredients. Crisp garlic shavings add texture to the tart, salty flavors of the dish. Like the soft shell shrimp, share it with friends as a starter, or eat it all by yourself as a light meal for one person.
The lunch menu was launched on April 2 and is slightly different from the dinner menu. Wei says that it’s the more affordable way to enjoy Chino MNL. Acknowledging that most Filipinos need their rice, Chino MNL has introduced three lunch plates.
Chicken Achiote uses breast meat, cooked sous-vide and grilled until the perfect char is achieved. The chicken is moist, juicy, slightly garlicky, and peppery. Chicken al Pastor uses the fattier, meatier thigh portion—marinated with agave syrup and pineapple, and grilled. Its flavor profile is sweeter, almost similar to a Filipino-style chicken barbecue. Both dishes are served with corn and tomato salsa, Sriracha-drizzled coleslaw, tortillas, and a Chino MNL-style garlic rice that combines umami with a heap of paperthin, crisp garlic shavings. Give me a bowl of that rice and a spoon, and I’d be happy. The third dish is sweet, soy-braised pork topped with pink pickled onions. All three dishes have the heft to satisfy someone looking for a hearty lunch, but stop just short of inducing a food coma if diners need to go back to work after lunch.
At night, if the signature tacos and tostadas aren’t enough to fill you up, an order of Sakura Ebi Rice is a great way to end the meal. It’s a moist, almost saucy rice dish that layers all sorts of umami flavors like chipotle dashi, a blanket of crisp fried kalkag (miniscule shrimp fry that have been salted and dried), the fresh zing of lemon zest and green onion, and more of those paper thin fried garlic shavings.
As for Sunday brunch, while I haven’t tried it yet, a look at the menu promises that it will be brunch—Chino-style. I’ve already picked out tacos with bacon and egg, a tostada that combines smoked tuna and egg salad, a rice bowl with wagyu tataki and sous-vide egg, chorizo scramble with beef fat potatoes, and huevos rancheros as the dishes I would go for.
In the end, I realize that I shouldn’t have listened to the labels.
Chino MNL is what it was meant to be—a restaurant focused on fresh, seasonal, and creative food and drinks. It isn’t a neighborhood restaurant, at least not in the way it is in Hong Kong or some of our local restaurant concepts, but it could get there in time if it stays true to its heart.
As Wei explains, “We’re not trying to be kitschy or hip. To be honest we’re just trying to serve good food, and provide good service, and do what we like. The whole point was to open a place where we would want to dine.”
Chino MNL is at the Ground Floor, One Bonifacio, 28th Street. Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. (+639) 17 142 0588. Closed on Mondays.