When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying our curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: El Chino Restaurante y Cantina
Location: 711 South Central Avenue
Open: Less than two months
Eats: Casual Mexican staples like tacos, burritos, and combo platters
Price: $10 per person
If you're a regular at Taquería El Chino, the excellent mom-and-pop taco shop near Van Buren and 18th Avenue, then you probably spent last fall eagerly awaiting the opening of the taquería's new sister restaurant, El Chino Restaurante y Cantina.
After some delay, El Chino Restaurante y Cantina opened this February in a sprawling 5,000-square-foot space in downtown Phoenix's Warehouse District. The sleek, industrial space, which features an outdoor patio, full bar, open kitchen and a small stage for live music on the weekends, is the first full-service restaurant and bar from husband-and-wife team Rafael and Lynn Ung.
El Chino Restaurante y Cantina is no cut-and-paste effort; for their second restaurant, the Ungs seem to be aiming for a full-service restaurant and bar that doubles as a neighborhood lounge and nightlife destination.
El Chino Restaurante y Cantina already has the airs of a neighborhood hangout that's already broken-in. The space feels built for drinking and lounging. It is equipped with comfy bar seating and TV screens aplenty, flashing the latest news and sports scores.
On weekend nights, the daytime barfly milieu in the dining room gives way to the throbbing sounds of live music and DJs on the restaurant's stage. There has long been a void of Latino-centric bar and nightlife in downtown Phoenix. El Chino does its part to change that. With weekend programming of Spanish language live music, El Chino is helping draw folks out of their homes and onto the restaurant's dance floor and lively patio.
As for the food, El Chino Restaurante y Cantina feels like a departure from its sister concept, a tiny, no-frills, counter-service spot known for Norteño-style grub like rib-eye carne asada tacos and carne en salsa roja (red chile beef).
Although there's some overlap, this menu leans much more heavily on Mexican-American restaurant staples. Still, you'll find signature Taquería El Chino menu items like red chile beef.
During lunch recently, I revisited another old favorite: the carne en salsa verde burrito. The savory, extra-saucy and green chile beef burrito is still quite good.
There are tacos, too. El Chino Restaurante y Cantina offers a stripped-down selection, which means you won't find offal specialties like cachete or lengua.
On a recent lunch visit, there were three tacos available: carne asada, pollo, and barbacoa, served with your choice of corn or flour tortilla. The carne asada featured slightly chewy, bubbling bits of nicely seasoned and gently charred ribeye. The chicken taco, meanwhile, was flavorful, but a little on the dry side. The clear winner, though, was barbacoa, a tangle of delightfully saucy, tender, and garlicky shredded beef.
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Apart from tacos, you'll find other familiar Mexican restaurant dishes, including enchiladas, chile rellenos, and tostadas. My server recommended the gorditas — split, thick corn patties bathed in a homemade enchilada sauce and topped with your choice of shredded beef or chicken. The chicken was flavorful and juicy, and the shredded beef was nicely seasoned and succulent. But it was the lovely homemade red enchilada sauce, robust yet well-balanced, that really made the dish a knock-out.
The menu is still in flux at El Chino. During my recent visit, my server informed me that certain items, namely the caldo de queso and adobada taco, were no longer available. And judging from two recent visits, service could still use some fine-tuning — food service slowed to a crawl on a recent busy Saturday night.
Despite these shortcomings and growing pains, El Chino Restaurante y Bar feels well-positioned to evolve into the kind of indispensable, south-central neighborhood tavern that has been missing from downtown Phoenix.
El Chino Restaurante y Cantina, 711 South Central Avenue, 602-626-5681; Sunday to Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Fridays & Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.