Walter Lee is Taiwanese, and grew up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood near Los Angeles. His wife Mari is Mexican, and grew up in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood near Los Angeles. Together, they opened Chino's last month in Capitol Hill, serving up a mix of Mexican and Taiwanese bites to soak up a slew of festive tiki drinks. Their logo--with a bright, Snoop Dogg-worthy purple low rider cruising through the streets of Seattle--offers "food from the street".
Chino's owners, Mari and Walter Lee
At Chino's, your order of a Singapore Sling and a "Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai" can come with a bowl of Tinga Poblano, a Mexican braised pork with chorizo dish, or a gua bao, a Taiwanese pork belly burger in a steamed bun. However, Lee asserts that this is not fusion. Rather, Chino's is effectively a Los Angeles joint. In this week's Gillaxin Q&A, the Lees talk Tiki drinks and make the argument for why you wouldn't have a martini with a gua bao.
SW: Did it feel risky or odd to put Mexican and Taiwanese together as a menu concept?
Walter: I didn't think it was risky. Maybe it is. Maybe some people think it's weird but I think it makes sense. The food is similar. These are the two dominant immigrant cultures in LA, Mexican and Taiwanese. The food is similar, a lot of pork and braising.
Mari: The food preparations are very similar. You take cheap cuts of meat--tongue, stomach--and you cook it for a long time and make it edible. The flavors are slightly different but the preparation style is similar and also the purpose behind the food, which in our case was recreating our homeland. A lot of the menu is his grandma's home cooking. The other thing is, it's been done. We're not actually the innovators. There is a place in Vegas that is doing the Chinese-Mexican thing. It's on the strip somewhere. People are excited about it because they have heard about other places across the country doing it.
Where did the inspiration behind the tiki drinks come from?
Mari: We decided that it was going to be an LA based bar. Tiki was actually invented in LA. Tiki actually blends very well with Cantonese and Taiwanese flavors because that's what was always served at Tiki restaurants.
Walter: Also, when you go to those divey Chinese places, those old school places--where they serve General Tso's--they always have a bar, a lounge that serves Mai Tais. I like Tiki drinks. You know the old Trader Vic's chain, they were fun. Mistral started doing tiki-ish drinks, and when I go to Tavern Law, Nathan Weber always likes to make Tiki drinks. It seems like it works but no one specializes in it, and it kind of fits that whole dive-y Chinese restaurant thing. The flavors go well with the food too. You wouldn't have a martini with a gua bao. The food is rich and the tiki drinks kind of cut it; the acid and the fruitiness is refreshing.
You mentioned that some of the dishes on the menu are from your grandmother's recipes. Are there any dishes that hold a sentimental value?
Walter: Yeah, the flavored eggs, the lu dan. My grandmother made lu dan and everyone loved it. She would make huge batches of it and give it out to people. My mom took it to work and gave it to her co-workers.
Mari: My Dad is Mexican, my mom is actually Canadian, and neither of them cook. My aunt was always the homemaker of the family. We're going to eventually bring out a menudo and that is her. It was always her. She was the food center of our family.
This is the oft mentioned Taiwanese menudo?
Walter: That one might not work out. We're still playing around with it.
Mari: We don't love it yet. We didn't really want to be fusion. We really wanted a lounge that has good food. So we haven't played too much with fusion. That dish, it might just one day die and become [regular] menudo.
Walter: Fusion food, well, I'm not into that stuff. It was never meant to be fusion. And we wanted to be known more as a lounge, a bar, rather than a sit down restaurant.
What drove the two of you to enter the restaurant business?
Mari: It's really our passion. I know everyone says it's their passion. There have been many married couples that have told us, "Don't go into the business together. You guys will get a divorce." But we thought, "No, that's not us." We just really wanted to work together. His parents had owned restaurants so there is knowledge there. We're not going into it totally blind.
Did his family discourage you from entering the restaurant business?
Mari: Pretty much. His mother didn't talk to him for three hours. He had ended up not taking the BAR. He graduated from UW (law school), and didn't waste money on BAR prep. We lied to her and told her he passed the BAR. Then we finally just thought, "Well, we better tell her." She got real quiet and went outside to get a coffee for a while, and then she came back in and was like, "Okay, here's what we're going to do", and we're like, "I see, now you're on board. Okay!"
Where do the two of you go for Taiwanese and Mexican food in Seattle?
Walter: Din Tai Fung, real happy they opened. It's better in Taiwan though. I don't know, might be the water or something. But at least it's here. So all we need is an In & Out and we'll be good.
Mari: Things are getting better here! There's a place in the International District called Hard Wok Café. It's like Taiwanese novelty food.
Walter: Facing East in Bellevue is pretty good too.