Dumplings and cocktails. That's the elevator pitch for Chino, the new “Chinese-y” restaurant at 16th and Guerrero from the folks behind Tacolicious. The idea was born years ago in a conversation between owner Joe Hargrave and his now-beverage director, Mike Barrow, on a drive back from Tahoe: What if there were somewhere in the city where they could eat Asian food, drink good cocktails, and watch a football game? The concept was put on the back burner as the two built the Tacolicious mini-empire, but Hargrave never forgot it, nor did he stop noticing how his children behaved like “dumpling vacuums” on family visits to San Francisco institutions like Kingdom of Dumpling. Finally, all the pieces came together and he built Chino, named after the Spanish word for “Chinese” and the kitchen nickname of a Chinese chef Hargrave used to work with.
His instincts were apparently right. Chino has been busy since it opened. The restaurant only takes reservations for parties of six or more, and the wait can be up to an hour and a half on a Tuesday night. Twenty- and thirtysomething San Franciscans, it turns out, can vacuum up dumplings as well as 7-year-olds — especially when washed down with a boozy boba tea slushie at a restaurant open until 1 a.m. every day. It doesn't hurt that Chino's casual, playful décor is more inviting than the average shabby dumpling house or opulent dim sum palace. There are lavender tennis shoes hanging from strings of cafe lights above the tables, large-scale photos from Chinatown on the exposed brick wall, a swarm of pastel lanterns above the back booths, and brightly colored shelves filled with vintage toys next to the bar. The playfulness of Hargrave's design also extends to his food. The menu has items like chicharron bao and matcha soft serve topped with Fruity Pebbles. Dishes have names like “Cucumbers, All Busted Up” and “Nick Balla's Dope Ass Japan-o-Mission Wings.”
The first question, of course, is whether the dumplings are any good. Chino is bravely trafficking in XLB, aka xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings, aka one of the sexiest and hardest-to-pull-off variations in the canon. On early visits, the XLB were the worst thing on the table, their wrappers too grainy and glutinous one night, so soft on another that they tore and let the soup filling spill out. But Hargrave and his dumpling master Leo Gan kept at it and have finally found a formula that works. These are not the best XLB in town — that distinction goes to Yank Sing, Kingdom of Dumpling, or Shanghai Dumpling House, depending on who you ask — but they are perfectly fine, really pretty good if you have a craving and don't feel like traveling the Avenues, or want to eat a version made with sustainably raised meat. (Chino gets its pork from Marin Sun Farms.)
Other dumplings on the menu are more than just pretty good. In the shrimp wontons, the Laughing Bird shrimp filling shone brightly through the slick, dull heat of the orange-red chile oil sauce. Spicy green bean dumplings, one of the menu's few concessions to vegetarians, had a vegetal, almost-good-for-you quality about them. And the steamed pork and Napa cabbage versions had the proper thick skins and rounded flavor.
A few people I know have criticized Chino for not being “authentic” enough, but authenticity, whatever that means, was never Hargrave's goal. “We're not a Chinese restaurant as much as a San Francisco restaurant that cooks with Chinese ingredients,” he says. To that end, there are crisp pork lumpia, from Filipino-American chef Dale Arcalas' mother's recipe, and zesty, spicy, Japanese-influenced chicken wings based on Bar Tartine chef Nick Balla's recipe from his Nombe days. Hot-and-sour soup here isn't the cornstarch-enhanced glop you find at many Chinese restaurants but a clear, smooth, spicy-as-hell broth filled with seasonal produce like cherry tomatoes and summer corn.
On hand to temper the soup's heat, or the slow, numbing burn of the Szechuan peppercorns in the braised pork noodles (a version of dan dan noodles, kind of a Chinese bolognese) are slushy boba cocktails. Like boba drinks, they come sealed in plastic cups with oversized straws — but with alcohol in them. Their flavors, like the rest of the menu, will change with the seasons: Currently you can try the Daisy Duck, an absurdly easy-to-drink vodka number made with fresh peach and ginger, or the Lady Boy, whose rummy flavor gives way to fresh Dirty Girl strawberries. The boba bubbles are arguably unnecessary, and freeze rock-hard after enough time in the icy slush, but for a novelty drink, these are pretty damn addictive.
And if those aren't your scene, there's a long list of cocktails from the full bar – the other part of the Chino equation. Chinese-American bar manager Danny Louie, whose father tended bar at Cecelia Chang's upscale Chinatown restaurant The Mandarin in the 1970s, uses Chinese ingredients in his drinks to beautiful effect. The 9 Volt combines Aviation gin with white grape, green tea, and a hit of those numbing Szechuan peppercorns, while the Up in Smoke pairs Laphroaig 10-year scotch with smoky lapsang souchong tea.
With wins on both dumpling and cocktail fronts, Chino already feels like a Mission institution that's been open much longer than a few months. It's still evolving — Hargrave is quick to admit he knows how far the restaurant has to go —but it's already a solid place to hang out with friends on a casual weekday dinner, meet a first date or business partner (go early for the latter two; the noise level rises with the crowd size), or have a late-night drunken feast with friends about to get on BART. Dumplings bring people together and cure all woes, at least temporarily; even children know that.