There’s a lot packed into a simple name: Chino. According to Erik Idos, the L.A.-bred Filipino-American chef and co-owner, it was the nickname once given to him by his Mexican co-workers, as the only Asian in the kitchen. It is also the name of his first restaurant that he opened with partner Tracy Wei in Hong Kong in 2014, serving essentially Mexican food with Japanese sensibilities.
From Mexico and Japan by way of California, to Hong Kong and now the Philippines, Chino reflects the globetrotting nature of Chef Erik and Tracy and their desire to create a relaxed, open, and egalitarian space that would make sense pretty much anywhere in the world.
Tracy admits that not everyone “gets” Chino at first. They only serve dinner, no reservations accepted, and they close on Mondays—no skipping of lines tolerated. In status-sensitive Manila, that may ruffle a few feathers, but it’s an ethos that Chef Erik and Tracy feel is an integral part of the Chino experience.
While the menu is decidedly Mexican, the interiors feel more Asian in its spare concrete-steel-wood aesthetic which Chef Erik says is pretty much the same look as the Hong Kong restaurant, except that the Manila branch is twice as big. Here, it’s the open kitchen and bar that dominate the space.
It is only when the menu comes that you realize, oh, Chino serves Mexican food. At first glance, the menu seems fairly straightforward with standards like Chorizo Queso Fundido, Guacamole, plus the obligatory tacos and tostadas. After all, Chef Erik’s knowledge of Mexican food runs deep, having grown up in Los Angeles eating tacos every day for lunch or after school. He shares, “I was never trained in Mexican cooking, I just knew the flavors.”
But a closer look at the menu reveals words like shiso, yuzu, miso, Kewpie—a definite, yet still subtle Japanese presence in the dishes, and for good reason. Chef Erik worked in Nobu for ten years, in its branches in California, New York, and finally Hong Kong. He absorbed much of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s adherence to simplicity, freshness and quality of ingredients, but without the rigidity of classic Japanese cooking.
So for the first Chino in Hong Kong, it made perfect sense to offer Mexican dishes using Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques. When Chino opened in the newly buzzing Kennedy Town in 2014, it soon became a go-to spot for Hong Kongers looking to enjoy its cool, youthful vibe and spot-on Mexican flavors.
Tracy and Chef Erik had been hoping to set up shop in Manila for some time. They both love Manila, and Chef Erik still has family here. Chino Manila finally opened its doors this June 2018 as the first restaurant in the spanking new One Bonifacio High building. The menu is virtually the same as the one in Hong Kong, save Chef Erik uses local produce as much as he can. He uses local dayap as his citrus of choice for his Market Fish Ceviche, and he serves local talakitok with shiso lime dressing and pickled pineapple.
Other starters skew more Mexican, like his Grilled Corn with cotija cheese from Mexico, and chipotle Kewpie (everyone’s favorite Japanese mayo). Chips and Dips is its own category on the menu, with blue corn chips or chicharrones to be enjoyed with various dips and salsas, whether a Chorizo Queso Fundido or a Cherry Tomato salsa with shiso, for example.
The main draw remains the tacos and tostadas, offering toppings like Goat Barbacoa with an arbol miso sauce and sesame, or a more classic Chicken Tinga with pickled onions and avocado. Among the tostadas, the Chicken & Egg has become an Instagram favorite in Hong Kong. On a crispy corn tostada shell, Chef Erik layers guacamole, chicken braised in chipotle, and a Japanese egg with the yolk oozing at first bite.
Heftier fare is available as well, like the Enchiladas filled with pulled pork or carnitas, rolled in corn tortillas, and served with enchilada sauce and queso. Enchiladas are Mexican comfort food, not usually included in fancier menus, but Chef Erik has a fondness for their homey comforts. His only touch is a refreshing salad of pickled jalapeño, onion, cucumber, and cilantro to cut the heaviness. Also on the menu are familia platters good for sharing, whether a whole fried market fish, or Cochinita Pibil, a whole-roasted pork shoulder.
While Tracy handles the front of house, she manages to keep her pastry chef chops alive, offering a limited dessert menu, highlighted by her Thai Tea Tres Leches with fresh crema, topped with boba pearls.
Chino wouldn’t be Chino without mentioning its curated assortment of mezcal from Oaxaca and tequila from Jalisco, most likely the largest collection in the country. From “entry level” mezcal with minimal smokiness to rare bottles that can’t even be Googled (and at prices that rival your single malts!), you’ll get a crash course on the fine points of this agave-based liquor from Mexico. Chino also has a sizable drinks list, with cocktails, wines, plus its very own house beer, Chino Cerveza by local craft brewer Joe’s Brew.
While you may wish that Chino opens for lunch, that they take reservations, that the prices may come down a bit, there is still something special about this Hong Kong import. Cosmopolitan and casual, unpretentious yet refined, young in feeling but happily old school in many ways, Chino knows how to get comfortable whatever the location, whether in Hong Kong, Manila, or wherever the couple decides to set up shop next.
Tracy says it best, “We’re not trying to be cool, we’re not trying to do anything. We just want people to have good food, some really great drinks, hang out with their friends and family. Just a neighborhood restaurant, that’s what we’re really trying to do.”
G/F One Bonifacio High, 28th Street, Bonifacio Global City, (0917) 142-0588
Dinner only, no reservations accepted, closed Mondays