Hipper than thou: A Cap Hill restaurant’s struggle with authenticity

Walter and Mari Lee, owners of Chino's. Credit: Chino's

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.

Despite the city’s recent loosening of laws regulating the operation of food trucks, it is still not easy to be a mobile restaurateur. Food trucks must park in private lots or in designated zones; owners cannot just pull up to the curb and sell food, which takes away the truck’s strategic advantage and kills its magic.

So while it might have made economic sense for the relatively inexperienced Lees to start Chino’s as a truck that sold gua bao and nothing but, the couple took a chance on real walls and floors without the benefit of experience.

Both grew up in Los Angeles in families that cooked and ate a lot. Walter was born in Brazil and moved to the San Gabriel Valley with his Taiwanese immigrant parents when he was three. Most of his classmates were Hispanic. Mari grew up a little farther east near Pomona. Her mother is Canadian, her father Mexican. She and Walter met while attending Mt. San Antonio College, one of the biggest and most diverse junior colleges in the country, where both her parents happened to work.

Walter later joined the Marines and was posted to the Navy’s Bangor submarine base, so the couple moved north and settled in Seattle after Walter got out of the Marines. They both attended the UW. While he got his law degree, Mari studied biology. Chino’s was a complete departure from their plans.

They purchased the space, betting on the long haul. They found an architect, then another. They landed Groth and hired a staff of about 10. They went big on cocktails, but stayed small on food. Walter has always done the cooking; his menu is based on the foods he knew growing up.

“People tell us, ‘You’ll be fine, your concept is great,’ and we know it’s unique,” Mari said. “I just don’t know if that’s what people want. I think people want the safe thing.”

As adventurous as we might all like to think we are when it comes to food here on the western edge of the continent, Mari has a point. Very few establishments, even those that serve ethnic specialties, stray from the familiar. Recipes are tweaked, ingredients substituted or deleted. In order for most businesses to survive, they have to please a broad audience.

There are not enough Russians, Colombians, Dominicans, Southerners, Japanese, Jews, Lebanese, or even Thais in Seattle to support restaurants catering to only their tastes and expectations. Sure Thai restaurants are everywhere, but they are homogenous and predictable and their chefs are not cooking for Thai customers. (As a counter-example, there are enough Koreans in King County to support several exceedingly good Korean restaurants.)

Since Taiwanese street food is not exactly ubiquitous in Seattle, the Lees hedged their bets with the high-traffic location of Chino’s, the cocktails, and the popularity of Asian tacos and chicken wings. The gua bao was a bit more of a reach. Pork belly enjoys celebrity status in certain dining circles, but still manages to intimidate some. Mari said many customers pick away the fat. Others go out of their way to order the tofu version of Chino’s gua bao, which is really not gua bao at all.

To their credit, the Lees have tried to keep their restaurant as “street” as possible while accommodating the affluent, hipster culture of Capitol Hill. It might be they did too good a job, making it too “street” for the audience they’re aiming for.

Asian customers, Mari said, want Chino’s to be an authentic Taiwanese restaurant, and wish Chino’s had more traditional dishes like blood cake or offal. Hipsters just want to drink and maybe order something innocuous like sliders or French fries. Other diners arrive expecting Chino’s to be a typical Asian restaurant, hoping for sushi, fried rice, or something bland and satisfying like cashew chicken. Chino’s serves none of those things, although the Lees are kicking around the idea of adding a chicken dish.

“Some customers are angry the menu is not larger, or that we don’t have this special Taiwanese dish or that special dish,” Mari said. “Some think we’re a Mexican restaurant. Some get angry we serve only 12 items…People who go out to drink don’t want to drink in an Asian place, they never do. We even get comments from Asian customers who say, ‘yeah, we’ll hit you up on the way to a bar,’ even though we are a bar. I guess to them, we’re not a bar…People don’t want a jumble. They want a concise message.”

The Lees said they have learned a sobering lesson; that having a successful restaurant is not all about the food, but also the marketing. The gua bao (an incredibly popular concept in New York thanks to the legendary Momofuku restaurant, which itself, struggled at first with plenty of empty seats), might do better in Seattle as Asian pork sliders, or Taiwanese burgers. Zha jiang mein is translated on the menu as “Chinese spaghetti,” which might partly explain why it is Chino’s most popular dish. (The dish is most popular in Korea, although it is Chinese in origin. The Korean version is black, soupy and sweet; the Taiwanese version is brown, dry, and salty.) Chino’s pig ear salad might be more appealing on the menu as crunchy pork tapenade.

Perhaps Chino’s might have been more cleverly named the Leaping Pig, the Laughing Boar, the Stumbling Toad, the Barking Goat, or any combination of cute animal and ridiculous verb that every restaurant owner seems to go for these days. At the very least, Lee’s Gastropub, or Formosa Bistro, might have been safer.

Quick to leverage another trend, the Lees recently concocted a Linsanity special, three gua bao and a large bottle of Taiwanese beer for $15. “Chino’s is Seattle’s home for LINSANITY!” its website reads.

For the culturally ignorant, Jeremy Lin, who like Walter is Taiwanese American, is the NBA’s newest superstar. The New York Knicks point guard made the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row, and appeared on the sports cover of Newsday (one of New York’s three daily tabloids) a record 20 days in a row.

Lin and Linsanity are not particularly relevant to street food in Seattle, but the mere mention of his name will optimize this article for search engines and cause it to show up in more Google searches, or so I’m told. And as we know, success comes from leveraging trends. So in the name of search engine optimization, perhaps it is worth repeating.

Jeremy Lin. Linsanity.

If you go: Chino’s, 1024 E. Pike Street in Seattle, (206) 860-4238, www.chinosseattle.com. Open Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; open Friday and Saturday 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; happy hour 4-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sundays and Mondays.

Since Taiwanese street food is not exactly ubiquitous in Seattle, the Lees hedged their bets with the
high-traffic location of Chino’s, the cocktails, and the popularity of Asian tacos and chicken wings. The
gua bao was a bit more of a reach. Pork belly enjoys celebrity status in certain dining circles, but still
manages to intimidate some. Mari said many customers pick away the fat. Others go out of their way to
order the tofu version of Chino’s gua bao, which is really not gua bao at all.

To their credit, the Lees have tried to keep their restaurant as “street” as possible while
accommodating the affluent, hipster culture of Capitol Hill. It might be they did too good a job, making it
too “street” for the audience they’re aiming for.

Asian customers, Mari said, want Chino’s to be an authentic Taiwanese restaurant, and wish Chino’s
had more traditional dishes like blood cake or offal. Hipsters just want to drink and maybe order
something innocuous like sliders or French fries. Other diners arrive expecting Chino’s to be a typical
Asian restaurant, hoping for sushi, fried rice, or something bland and satisfying like cashew chicken.
Chino’s serves none of those things, although the Lees are kicking around the idea of adding a chicken
dish.

“Some customers are angry the menu is not larger, or that we don’t have this special Taiwanese dish
or that special dish,” Mari said. “Some think we’re a Mexican restaurant. Some get angry we serve only
12 items…People who go out to drink don’t want to drink in an Asian place, they never do. We even get
comments from Asian customers who say, ‘yeah, we’ll hit you up on the way to a bar,’ even though we
are a bar. I guess to them, we’re not a bar…People don’t want a jumble. They want a concise message.”

The Lees said they have learned a sobering lesson, that having a successful restaurant is not all about
the food, but also the marketing. The gua bao (an incredibly popular concept in New York thanks to the
legendary Momofuku restaurant, which itself, struggled at first with plenty of empty seats), might do
better in Seattle as Asian pork sliders, or Taiwanese burgers. Zha jiang mein is translated on the menu
as “Chinese spaghetti,” which might partly explain why it is Chino’s most popular dish. (The dish is most
popular in Korea, although it is Chinese in origin. The Korean version is black, soupy and sweet; the
Taiwanese version is brown, dry, and salty.) Chino’s pig ear salad might be more appealing on the menu
as crunchy pork tapenade.

Perhaps Chino’s might have been more cleverly named the Leaping Pig, the Laughing Boar, the
Stumbling Toad, the Barking Goat, or any combination of cute animal and ridiculous verb that every
restaurant owner seems to go for these days. At the very least, Lee’s Gastropub, or Formosa Bistro,
might have been safer.

Quick to leverage another trend, the Lees recently concocted a Linsanity special, three gua bao and a
large bottle of Taiwanese beer for $15.

“Chino’s is Seattle’s home for LINSANITY!” its website reads.

For the culturally ignorant, Jeremy Lin, who like Walter is Taiwanese American, is the NBA’s newest
superstar. The New York Knicks point guard made the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row,

and appeared on the sports cover of Newsday (one of New York’s three daily tabloids) a record 20 days
in a row.

Lin and Linsanity are not particularly relevant to this article about street food in Seattle, but the mere
mention of his name will optimize this article for search engines and cause it to show up in more Google
searches, or so I’m told. And as we know, success comes from leveraging trends. So in the name of
search engine optimization, perhaps it is worth repeating.

Jeremy Lin. Linsanity.

If you go:

Chino’s

1024 E. Pike Street in Seattle, (206) 860-4238

www.chinosseattle.com

Open Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; open Friday and Saturday 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; happy hour 4-6 p.m.
Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sundays and Mondays.

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