Does Chino Bandido have the weirdest menu in town? Possibly. It’s hard to think of another local restaurant where you can order an egg foo yung burrito, pair a chile relleno with your pork fried rice, or get a rice bowl topped with both Sonoran machaca and Chinese barbecue.
The Mex-Chinese (with a dash of Caribbean flavor) restaurant debuted in 1990 in north Phoenix, a sort of forerunner to the kind of modern fusion cooking you now find at places like SumoMaya or the Clever Koi. Chino Bandido doesn’t so much fuse distinct cuisines together, though — more like plops them side-by-side in the same aluminum bowl.
The restaurant has been around long enough to achieve cult-classic status in metro Phoenix. It’s the restaurant equivalent of that quirky indie movie you love fiercely and remember fondly, but which might not be recommended for a mass audience, or perhaps doesn’t have the same impact on a second viewing.
Still, there is something eternal about eating at Chino Bandido, a feeling that’s kind of evoked in the restaurant’s tagline — “Eat at Chinos, Live Forever!”
The restaurant’s mascot, a panda bear with a Pancho Villa-inspired canana (cartridge belt) slung across its chest, wearing a big sombrero and holding chopsticks, seems so curiously retro and cheesy, it feels about ready to be embraced as a local icon. You can picture the logo splashed across the front of some Phoenix hipster’s faded vintage-style T-shirt.
The strip-mall restaurant itself is shabby yet appealing. The restaurant’s lobby, decked out with black-and-white checkered floors and a “Wall of Chino” covered in plaques and award certificates bearing dates from nearly 20 years ago, seems untouched by time. You get the feeling that some of the friendly people working the counter have been there about that long, too.
If you grew up in north Phoenix, the bare-bones dining room, which has been expanded over the years to seat more than 100 guests on workaday folding tables, probably holds as many memories as any scrapbook.
For first-timers, the Chino Bandido menu — printed on long, white order forms with instructions and checkboxes — might seem about as complicated and indecipherable as somebody’s medical chart. It’s full of obscure acronyms — the JFR stands for jerk fried rice — and painfully obvious menu descriptions: Quesadillas, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, are “folded cheese crisps.”
One of the best things about eating at Chino Bandido is simply figuring out the ordering system. The combos and configurations are almost endless, and you can get as weird with your order as you wish. You can order some Mexican-style carnitas, served over Jamaican jerk fried rice, with a cheese quesadilla on the side. Nobody will bat an eye.
You probably love the food at Chino Bandido’s more than I do. On a recent visit, my combo bowl was a cheese-laden muddle of bland refried beans, under-seasoned pork fried rice, and an egg foo yung that was so devoid of flavor, it might have doubled as a waterlogged dishrag.
An order of the T.J. Veggie quesadilla was not much more than a soggy flour tortilla, half-heartedly sprinkled with a little cheese and crammed with cold iceberg lettuce and veggies.
The real allure comes with the proteins, unapologetically made in the vein of American Chinese fast food — things like the Jade Red chicken, Chinese barbecue pork, or Hengrenade chicken. You can sample the various meats before locking in your order at the counter.
On a recent visit, the Jade Red chicken yielded soft, fleshy bundles of meat, draped in a goopy, sodium-rich sauce. The Chinese barbecue pork had a sort of earthy richness, like a loose, vaguely sweet mole sauce.
The chewy texture of the meat, though, and the unnaturally goopy flavorings, may siphon away some of the joy of eating at Chino Bandido.
The most perfect thing I’ve ever eaten at Chino Bandido, as it happens, is not something smothered in an orange-reddish sauce. It’s the complimentary house snickerdoodle cookie that comes with your meal. It’s a light, sugary confection that seems like an odd way to wind down dinner, until you remember that you are at Chino Bandido, where anything goes.
If Chino Bandido doesn’t satisfy your yen for Chinese takeout, another unusual spot for old-school American Chinese food is Chop and Wok, a fraying-around-the-edges, rock ’n’ roll-themed haunt near Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road.
The entrance is around the back — up a tattered red carpet, to the dimly lit dining room and bar, where the staccato rhythm of ’80s and ’90s rock hits play somewhere in the background.
Like Chino Bandido, it’s a bit of an oddball restaurant, steeped in nostalgia and offering a comprehensive catalog of American Chinese eats. There are signed records and posters and other rock memorabilia nailed to the walls, shabby booths and high-tops, and a small coterie of diners whiling away the afternoon with beer and televised rugby matches at the bar.
Chop and Wok has been around for 30 years, its long tenure briefly interrupted by a fire in 2011. Eventually, the restaurant re-emerged in its current space, only steps away from the original location.
The menu proudly advertises Chinese food delivery until 2 a.m., 365 days a year. Much like at Chino Bandido, you get the distinct impression that the good people of Chop and Wok have seen it all — you will not be judged here.
The menu is exhaustive, with more than 50 dishes available by the pint or quart in the long “a la carte” section of the menu.
You might be tempted to start with the Pu-Pu platter. The deluxe “Royale” version is an assemblage of deep-fried, grizzled things, including crunchy wontons, a couple of bland eggrolls, and clunky pot stickers. The dominant flavor is that of fried, flavorless flour dough. The exception is the barbecue ribs, which arrive heavily glazed in a sauce thick and dark as motor oil. The ribs are unbearably sweet and sticky. This platter turns out to be something of a bummer.
A better option? The house lo mein — the noodles are a little mushy, but invigorated by plump, well-cooked shrimp and saucy hunks of veggies.
There is a kiwi-strawberry chicken dish, which you may be tempted to order just to find out what exactly it is. It turns out to be something like sweet and sour chicken — lush, fleshy bundles of chicken smothered in a sticky-sweet sauce. It’s certainly not groundbreaking stuff, but fits the bill if you are a devotee of something like the orange chicken at Panda Express.
Tofu with yellow curry, meanwhile, is mostly flat and unsurprising. The yellow sauce is a little gritty, and doesn’t much amplify the naturally bland fried tofu cubes.
A more flavorful dish turns out to be a takeout stalwart: spicy Hunan beef. The dish delivers tender slices of steak, garlicky and fragrant, served with white onions and hunks of green bell peppers.
How do you end a meal at Chop and Wok? There are no desserts — the closest thing might be the barley wine, or some chocolate mint whisky from the drink menu. Maybe you’ll stop in the lobby and read the various newspaper clippings collected and framed over the years. You can leave knowing that things will look about the same the next time you come in.
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15414 North 19th Avenue
Hours: open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
T.J. veggie quesadilla $5
Rice bowl with any single item $7
Two-item combination $8.45
Chop and Wok
10425 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Hours: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Pu-Pu Royale platter $12.99
Tofu with curry $8.99
Spicy Hunan beef $8.99
House lo mein $10.49