Walter and Mari Lee’s new restaurant Chino’s opened in a corner storefront at 10th Avenue and Pike Street on Capitol Hill, a coveted spot in a spectacular neighborhood of spectacular restaurants that has not, so far, led to spectacular success for the recent merchants who have set up there.
Before the Lees opened Chino’s in December, the corner belonged to the Oasis Café — a mom-and-pop diner that, for years, served Japanese and Korean-style food to a small following of customers before it closed. Known for its friendly service, it was a sincere and dowdy place that, in retrospect, clearly did not keep up with the dining fashions of the neighborhood. It was an old-Seattle joint, the likes of which people do not frequent much anymore, but whose loss we tend to lament.
Chino’s promised to be a nicer, cooler, more evolved version of the Oasis. Chino’s, too, is a personable eatery with an Asian theme, run by a mom and pop, although technically Mari and Walter are not parents. More upscale than the Oasis, Chino’s defies easy description, although I will defer to its own from its website: “an urban tiki house and Taiwanese cantina,” a mouthful of concepts that walks the razor’s edge between friendly and sincere and contrived and pretentious.
In fact, it is pretty much all those descriptors. Informal, with a hand-made look, Chino’s is a bar with great snacks rather than a restaurant that serves liquor. Dishes are served in appetizer and lunch-sized portions, intended to be accompaniments to the alcohol. The flavors are bold and addictive, salty and tangy.
The gua bao, soft buns stuffed with braised pork belly (three for $8), bean paste noodles or zha jiang mein ($11), garlicky glazed chicken wings ($9), and pork tacos (two for $5), anchor the menu of about a dozen items. The tacos are better than Poquitos’.
The Lees hired a bartender with a great reputation (Veronika Groth, who used to tend bar at Poppy in the north end of Capitol Hill), who created a set of tropical-themed cocktails. Located in the most urban of Seattle neighborhoods, Chino's borrows inspiration from both the Asian and Hispanic cultures of Los Angeles, although it serves mostly variations of Taiwanese-Chinese bar food.
Its logo is a vintage, Chevy low-rider against the backdrop of the Space Needle. Chino’s is the kind of place I can imagine sprouting up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley north and west of Los Angeles or in the San Gabriel Valley in east Los Angeles, where the Lees grew up. Whether Chino’s can fit in and thrive in Seattle is not yet clear.
For the Lees, a young couple who plunged into the restaurant business, opening Chino’s has been a parable of food trends and dining habits in our city, a reassuring but also cautionary tale for any smart, cool folks who have watched a lot of food reality TV and have always dreamed of opening their own place.
“We’re feeling a little lost in the sauce right now,” Mari, 29, said. “We’ve had to start in square one with everything … In all ways, we are out of our league. Look around us. You have Café Vita, Quinn’s, the Unicorn, Poquitos. They’re all very established, with tried and true business models. It can be a little demoralizing being next to them sometimes, especially when you see they’re always packed.”
Chino’s is no flop, nor has it been an unequivocal success. It is a work in progress, still seeking its identity and audience. The weekends can be brisk; weeknights can feel empty. Initially, the Lees kept the place open seven days a week, but recently cut back to just five days, closing on Sundays and Mondays.
The Lees astutely rode the currents of several food trends: street food, the craft cocktail, Asian style tacos, and packaged them in a working-class-chic setting that has become popular with the ironic crowd. To some extent the concept has worked, although it has not yet proved to be a sure-fire bet.
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