Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
43: Jade red chicken at Chino Bandido
A friend of mine once described Chino Bandido this way: "It's like Panda Express and Filiberto's had a baby."
I've never been able to offer a more succinct description of this classic north Phoenix counter-service joint, which husband-and-wife team Frank and Eve Collins opened as a mom-and-pop take-out shop in 1990. (Frank Collins passed away in 2013, but Eve Collins continues on as the restaurant's owner and operator.)
Chino Bandido has built a loyal following over the years, thanks to an exhaustive menu of cross-cultural culinary mash-ups like egg foo yung burritos, and fried rice bowls topped with saucy meats like Sonoran-inspired machaca beef and Chinese-style barbecued pork.
Pretty much anything goes at Chino Bandido, and that's a big part of its charm. This is a restaurant whose unofficial mascot is a sombrero-wearing, chopsticks-wielding panda bear with a Pancho Villa-inspired canana (cartridge belt) slung across its chest, after all. This is also a restaurant where meals come with a complimentary snickerdoodle cookie. Nothing quite makes sense. But it's an awful lot of fun.
Service is always friendly at Chino Bandido. If you can't decide what to order, the folks behind the counter are generous with the free samples. And they're happy to help first-timers navigate the slightly involved ordering process. At first glance, the restaurant's long, white order forms, replete with instructions and check boxes, can seem as indecipherable as an obscure IRS form.
And if it seems like the ordering possibilities are endless, it's because they kind of are. When the Collins' appeared on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives back in 2008, they told Guy Fieri that there are more than 90,000 mix-and-match combo possibilities on the menu. I don't doubt it.
If you have friends who grew up in this part of north Phoenix, you've probably heard them talk longingly about after-school expeditions to Chino Bandido for classics like the grilled, smoky "hengrenade chicken," or Mexican-style carnitas, served over Jamaican jerk fried rice.
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But the undisputed house favorite is the jade red chicken, a solid choice for both newbies and long-time customers alike. The slightly grizzled chicken hunks are thoroughly glazed in a bright red sauce that's tangy, spicy, and sweet all at once. It's goopy and flavorful, and it has helped keep the dining room packed for more than two decades.
Try it in one of the restaurant's combo bowls, or stuffed into a burrito or quesadilla. Either way, the jade red chicken is irresistibly flavorful. It's the kind of off-the-wall comfort food that Chino Bandido, a true Phoenix original, has been giving us for almost 30 years now.
Chino Bandido. 15414 North 19th Avenue; 602-375-3639.
Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido