MANILA — To many passing by that stretch of park at One Bonifacio High in the center of Bonifacio Global City, Chino MNL may seem intimidating and mysterious. With just ‘Chino’ plastered onto the big glass windows, it doesn’t tell the prospective diner much.
For example, it doesn’t scream that this restaurant with modern-industrial interiors is the second branch of a celebrated Hong Kong restaurant, nor does it tell the culinary pedigrees of its chef-owners. (Before putting up Chino HK in 2014, Erik Idos was opening restaurants for the Nobu group around the world, while Tracy Wei, who also worked in Nobu previously, was also executive pastry chef of a successful restaurant group in Hong Kong).
And unless one takes the time to stop and peruse the menu (or read the many articles written about them, including this one), one might not know that they serve Mexican cuisine with Japanese influences.
That description may cause confusion to some (as it did to me), but ultimately, one shouldn’t get bogged down by semantics; what’s important here, as was proven to me by the many bites of the tacos that I had in the establishment, Chino MNL simply serves delicious Mexican food with occasional Japanese/Asian ingredients.
Truth be told, when one looks at a Chino dish — whether a street taco or a burrito — it doesn’t look overly complicated, and one may wonder if the price points are warranted. Besides the fact that the rent is higher in BGC plus the added price tag of the hip ambiance, the food thankfully also validates the premium prices, and compared to their neighbors, their prices are competitive.
Opening for lunch and introducing a brunch menu during Sunday may also help Chino MNL win new fans every day. Their substantial lunch plates are priced at P350 to P400, which would be just what you would pay for a bowl of good Japanese ramen in the area.
“People are starting to realize that we’re here, and more and more people are coming,” Idos said during our first visit.
Perhaps I was lucky in my choices, as I enjoyed everything I ate in Chino MNL. Flavors were never overwhelming, nor were they muted or muddled. Most of what I had was balanced, although some dishes like the Tiayuda needed a squeeze of lime to get there, and that was easy enough to accomplish.
A welcome gem to the culinary tapestry that is BGC, Chino MNL offers up a unique take on Mexican food and drink that’s both familiar and new. And while Chino MNL may look mysterious and intimidating from the outside, once you’re inside and seated though, it simply becomes a haven for those who like to savor delicious food, with attentive staff at the ready when you need to give them your impulse-order of another taco or two.
Below are some of my recommended dishes at Chino MNL.
Tiayuda. Jeeves de Veyra
For something to share, this is what you should order. Ido’s great utility of umami can be tasted best in the Tiayuda, which may easily be described as an Oaxacan tortilla pizza. A multi-layered dish that sings of umami, thanks to a generous amount of chorizo, with roasted salsa, cotija cheese, pickled onions, and creamy avocadoes on a crispy tortilla crust. We recommend squeezing some lime on top for some tangy balance. (Other Tiayuda options would be welcome as well).
Kataifi Shrimp. Jeeves de Veyra
If you’re not starting with the Tiayuda, it’s highly recommended to start with Kataifi Shrimp. This lettuce wrap has texture in spades. Kataifi is shredded phyllo dough (the same dough used to make baklavas) that when baked turn into crispy strands. Shrimp is wrapped in the kataifi, baked, put on top of lettuce, drizzled with a spicy kewpie sauce, and then finished with a crunch-tastic diced pickled jicama salsa, which provides a cool and crisp counterpoint to the heft of the shrimp and the kataifi.
Goat Barbacoa Taco. Jeeves de Veyra
The first bite of the goat barbacoa gave me pause, wondering if it was really goat, as there was no pronounced gamey taste. A bite was beautifully balanced — the meat was fork-tender with occasional burnt crunchy bits, juicy without overwhelming aromatics. Heat came after the initial bite thanks to arbol miso (miso with chilies) with fresh cilantro and herbs, as well as a tomato salsa piquing the palate with herbaceous and tangy flavors.
Grilled Shrimp Taco. Jeeves de Veyra
It’s in eating Chino MNL’s grilled shrimp taco that I most appreciated Idos’ Nobu background, as Nobu dishes has always translated to great seafood in my book. This sweet-savory taco had lightly grilled shrimp that stood up well to strong flavors like nutty salsa macha and tangy guacamole. The taco was made more interesting with the addition of craisins which balanced out the heat and let the natural sweetness of the shrimp shine through.
Chicken Al Pastor from the lunch menu. Jeeves de Veyra
When you look at this author’s favorite lunch plate, the Chicken Al Pastor, there’s nothing outwardly complex in its appearance. Grilled chicken with dark flecks topped with pickled onions are joined on the plate by a dome of garlic rice, a mound of coleslaw, and a bowl of grilled corn and tomatoes, with a couple of tortillas on the side.
The revelation comes when you start eating. It’s chicken that marries the Filipino triumvirate of flavor—sweet, salt, and sour, with smoky back notes from the grill. I kept coming back to that corn salad every time I needed to refresh my palate, as the cherry tomatoes were tangy and refreshing, and there’s some umami magic probably added to that corn when they grilled it. Their garlic rice had those paper-thin slivers of fried garlic that made every spoonful interesting, and the coleslaw gave a spicy kick every time I had it with the many things on the plate, thanks to chipotle kewpie dressing.
Taco Salad with Chicken Breast from the lunch menu. Jeeves de Veyra
Watching your rice? The cheapest lunch plate comes with cabbage, pickled green mango, dressed with a chipotle vinaigrette, in a crispy taco shell. Make it more filling with the addition of some Achiote marinated chicken breast (add P125).
Crab Fat with Roasted Bone Marrow Rice. Jeeves de Veyra
A dish that was made for drinking. Rich and unctuous, rice is mixed in a hot skillet with crab fat and roasted bone marrow, tempered by ginger and spring onions. This dish is unapologetically indulgent, and best paired with any of their tangy cocktails.
Thai Tea Tres Leches. Jeeves de Veyra
For dessert, order the Thai Tea Tres Leches. Rising from a pool of Thai tea, this orange-tinged dessert celebrates the lusciousness of Tres Leches, that half custard, half sponge mouthfeel, and thankfully dodges the common Tres Leches folly of being too sweet. Crispy rice ‘boba’ pearls top the dessert, adding aesthetic Instagram-worthiness, as well as delightful texture.
Chino MNL now offers brunch every Sunday from 12 p.m. until 8 p.m., and a lunch menu Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.