Chino MNL Makes Brunch, Lunch, and the Tastiest Chicken Breast You'll Ever Have
When Chino arrived in town, it was like that strange new kid no one could quite put a finger on, the one you and your conventional friends whispered about for being an offbeat weirdo who refused to color within the lines.
Chino was so unapologetically different that, if this story were a coming-of-age rom-com, you would know that, at your five-year reunion, it would return a blazing success—the way it already is in Hong Kong.
But Manila is a different city with different needs and demands, and the Hong Kong-grown restaurant has had to scramble to explain its seemingly "high brow sensibilities" to diners who are wary to put together Chino's high-minded cuisine with its casual neighborhood restaurant approach.
The goal is to be that cool, neighborhood restaurant.
"People compare us to other taco places that sell streetside tacos," says Chino owner Tracy Wei. "But we're not like that." She pauses to find the right words to describe her restaurant's cuisine. "We have Chino tacos." This remarkable unyielding style is reinforced with a determination for quality and consistency: Nearly every ingredient is imported; if not, it's delivered fresh every day.
"I feel like people are intimidated," Wei muses. "They're not used to seeing the owner of the restaurant working, taking reservations, and going around." She practically lives in Manila full-time now, while Erik Idos, co-owner and chef, heads the kitchen whenever he's in the city. "Chino is our baby. We're not a franchise. We're the actual owners and we want to see our baby grow. If anything, we're neglecting our first baby in Hong Kong." Fortunately, Chino HK runs by itself, a dream that the pair eventually wants for Manila.
Tracy Wei and Erik Idos when Chino MNL first opened in 2018.
It's been eight months since Chino MNL opened and perhaps the growing pains are over. Wei and Idos, who is Filipino, have observed local dining customs and preferences. "We've lowered the prices. We've lowered them to the lowest we could possibly go without compromising the quality," says Wei.
The pressure to perform has been a juggling act. "We had to stay true to Chino because people who know us from Hong Kong would come here and wonder why it's different, but we also have to build up our own customers." reveals Wei. Its signature tacos and tostadas remain on the menu, but now the emphasis is on its starters and heavier options. "Filipinos want to come to a restaurant and leave feeling full," she observes.
Chino may have relaxed its style, but in no way has it lowered its standards. Its new soft-shell shrimp stays faithful to its characteristic Mexican-Asian proclivity and it's a testament to how well it can really turn up local gastronomy. Local soft-shell shrimps are flown in every morning from Aklan, deep-fried, then served on ponzu-pickled watermelon. "It's so limited that today, for example, we can only serve this three times," says Wei. It's both refreshing and rich, definitely inventive, and so darn practical for shrimp lovers who can't be bothered to shell their favorite seafood in public.
Chino has also opened itself to serving Sunday brunch. "You know, we're really known as a neighborhood restaurant," explains Wei about their Kennedytown flagship. "We noticed that this area has a good crowd on Sundays so we wanted them to go to Chino."
The brunch is, of course, not the typical sausage and hash brown. As Wei puts it, "We tried to make dishes where we could just put an egg in there." Her carefree approach doesn't prepare you for the Chinoya, a bibimbap-esque Wagyu and rice combination surrounded by a halo of seaweed strips inside a piping-hot stone bowl. The beef is soft and tender, cooked in a way that it doesn't become too rich that you won't want to finish the whole thing on your own (an easy task if you ask us). There is, of course, the egg—sous-vide to a wobby perfection—that makes it perfect as a morning pick-me-up.
Even the French toast is an extra special treat: crusted in pinipig and doused in a miso caramel that's just the right amount of sweetness to make you want every triangle.
Wei reveals Chino is also launching a lunch menu in April. "Rice!" she says, with a smile while shaking her head. "People want rice!" Garlic rice and a block of sweet soy-braised pork belly, which is reminiscent of the local humba, will appeal to any Filipino, but it's the chicken breast that will confirm how well the Chino kitchen knows its stuff.
It's grilled, charred in all the right parts, and evenly white when sliced through. It doesn't give you the juiciness of brawnier cuts like a thigh and leg, but it is moist, flavorful, and shockingly tender—so much so that by your third slice, you'll wonder if you're really eating chicken breast.
Despite all these new introductions, it's unfair to say that Chino has changed. It's only grown and Chino MNL is coming into its own.
"I go around tables every night, give customers shots, and try to cheers. Filipinos aren't used to it so usually we end up awkwardly cheersing or they do it among themselves when I leave the table," says Wei. When asked if she's going to give up on that any time soon, and she replies without hesitation: "No. I mean, that's what we do and we're getting there."
Chino MNL is at ground floor, One Bonifacio, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig; 0917-142-0588.