January 31, 2014

¡Hola, Chino!

There’s a new kid at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and he goes by Chino. The brainchild of Tacolicious owner Joe Hargrave and former Bar Agricole chef Brandon Jew, the restaurant soft-launched last December at the Saturday market, offering a fresh and from-scratch spin on a classic cuisine.

“For me, it’s Chinese-American food, just updated,” says Brandon. “We’re doing it with good ingredients from local farms, and things will be changing seasonally.”

Chino is Spanish for Chinese, of course, and it also happens to be a common nickname for Chinese cooks in San Francisco restaurant kitchens. “A lot of times, people just knew me as Chino,” says Brandon. “And that’s probably how a lot of Asian cooks have been named by the Latino prep and line cooks.”

“Kitchens aren’t always the most politically correct places,” Joe quips. “But we both thought it was kind of fitting, since we’re a Mexican restaurant group opening a Chinese restaurant in the Mission District.”

Chinatown Meets the Mission

Several years ago, Joe and his wife, food writer Sara Deseran, had the idea to open a fun, casual, and modern dumpling restaurant, styled loosely after the successful Tacolicious, now with four locations around the Bay Area.This town does tacos, pizza, and burgers really well, but it doesn’t really do dumplings. We had found those were the foods our kids liked most, with dumplings being number one.”

Meanwhile, Brandon was developing his own ideas for a modern Chinese restaurant. Born and raised in San Francisco, he remembers visiting Chinatown with his grandmother in search of the freshest eggplant and the youngest ginger. “My idea of Chinese food having a clean feeling really stemmed from growing up with what my grandma made.”

Brandon began his professional cooking career in college, then deepened his culinary education in Italy. After returning to San Francisco for stints at Zuni Café and Quince, he began reflecting more and more on the foods he grew up with. “I started thinking around the time of my grandmother passing away about gathering her recipes,” he recalls. “It put me on this path of wanting to cook Chinese food.”

He spent a year cooking in Shanghai, where he was “opened up to real Chinese food,” then came back to San Francisco. At Bar Agricole, he was able to experiment with combining Chinese and Northern California cuisines, making his own sausages and fermented bean paste.

Joe and Brandon eventually connected about their shared restaurant concept, and things clicked. When Andalu in the Mission District closed its doors last year and the space became available, the timing seemed right.

Back to the Farm

Joe approached CUESA to host a pop-up restaurant at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where Chino could start testing their menu items while the brick-and-mortar was being modeled (it’s currently set to open mid-April). “I really appreciate the way we got to incubate the Tacolicious concept at the Ferry Plaza,” says Joe.

For Brandon, much of the excitement of starting at the farmers market is deepening his relationships with local farmers. “A big part of it is actually encouraging farmers to grow Chinese vegetables,” he says. “What has helped push Italian food in the Bay Area in recent years is that farmers here have been growing really great Italian products.”

While there is a large community of Hmong farmers growing Asian vegetables in the Central Valley, Brandon says that many items, like Chinese celery, Chinese chives, and chayote greens, are hard to find organically grown. At the Ferry Plaza, he is heartened to see more organic farmers growing vegetables like tatsoi and bok choy.

Chino’s menu highlights clean and bright flavors as well as local and organic farms. A sweet and crisp chicken salad features carrots, cabbage, kohlrabi, and Hamada Farms mandarins. Pickled cucumber salad takes on a Latin flair with avocados from Brokaw’s Nursery. Wontons and dumplings are made with organic flour from Central Milling.

Not Quite Your Grandma’s Dumplings

For Brandon, teaching the kitchen staff the art of dumpling making has been one of the more enjoyable challenges of starting up the new restaurant. “We’ve had to throw out a few dumplings,” he admits. “It takes about 50 to 100 to get your muscle memory working, so that they come out the same every time.”

With many cultures in the kitchen, Chino pays a relaxed homage to its inspirational cuisine, while drawing on the wealth of the San Francisco melting pot and the Bay Area foodshed—much as Tacolicious has done with Mexican food. “We live in San Francisco and were raised as Californians,” says Joe. “We come at this concept from a place of love and passion not just for Chinese food, but for food in general.”

Brandon agrees. “I’m cooking food that I grew up with as a Chinese American. My Italian training and being in San Francisco for this long have also affected how I eat and cook.”

Through playful translations, Chino will hopefully inspire eaters to expand their ideas of what dumplings can be. “Chino is a fun name, and at this restaurant we want people to have fun,” Brandon continues. “Mexican and Chinese food are two of the most fun, lighthearted, and delicious cuisines out there.”

Update February 4, 2014: Tacolicious and Brandon Jew have amicably parted ways so that Brandon can focus on his own restaurant project, but Chino will continue to be lead by the Tacolicious team. Read more at tablehopper.

Try Chino for yourself at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays and Thursdays.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »