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.
The street food concept is particularly hot right now, the catchiest of catch phrases when marketing new, higher-end restaurants. Revel, Poquitos, Ba Bar all reacted to it quickly and have succeeded, perhaps because all cemented their reputations with previously established restaurants (Joule preceded Revel; Monsoon preceded Ba Bar; Bastille preceded Poquitos).
Street food, by pure definition, is expert but unrefined cooking, one person making one thing incredibly well from one family recipe, every day, selling from a cart, boat, wagon, or truck in the same street or alley and only in this particular village or city. Street food is real locavorism: cooking and eating local because you have no other choice.
But street food, by necessity, comes with a certain amount of chaos and risk. It cannot exist within a highly regulated system of codes and ordinances; it does guarantee your food will be served germ-free or at a specified temperature; it does not guarantee the proprietor will wash her hands or pay her taxes.
Bringing street food to hipsters in Fremont or Capitol Hill thus requires a bit of pasteurization, combing out the risk and chaos, adding a flourish or two, homogenizing the flavors and ramping up the presentation, which is exactly what restaurants like Revel and Poquitos have done. They have succeeded, perhaps, because they give us the best of both worlds, the adventure of approximating (very loosely) the experience of eating on the streets of Mexico City or Seoul without the risk or chaos. Isn’t that what living the good life in Seattle is largely about?
We want the benefits of urban density (mass transit, cultural diversity, cool stores, art) without paying the price (lost parking spots, the smell of urine in a train car, added noise and filth, tall condos), and we want street food, but in a familiar format.
While the street-food movement took folksy food and dressed it up in upscale surroundings, food trucks have done the opposite, wrapping upscale food in a folksy package (i.e. foie gras sliders in a paper basket). The upgrading of food trucks has brought a more refined class of food to a wider audience, but it has come at a cost too, raising the price of entry. Starting a food truck used to mean borrowing money from your relatives; now it takes a bank loan, which is why the Lees opened Chino’s as a restaurant.
“We were going to be a truck,” Walter, 35, said. “But trucks are getting expensive, the demand for them has skyrocketed and so has the price. The purchase price for a [refurbished] truck [about $100,000] equaled the down payment for the restaurant ... Plus it rains a lot in Seattle and you can’t sell liquor out of a truck."
The demand for food trucks (usually used cargo and mail trucks retrofitted by a handful of companies with a relative monopoly in the truck-conversion business) has been amplified by corporate franchises like Subway, Sizzler, and Chipotle adding food trucks to their retail outlets (mostly in California and other Sun Belt states). In Los Angeles County alone, about 4,000 food trucks are licensed to do business, according to the Los Angeles Times; more than 100 of them are considered to be gourmet.
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