The opening weekend at the beginning of July, Chino Bandido was an amusement park covered in jerk chicken and Chinese burritos. Masses crowding into the restaurant’s new location formed a roller coaster line which were woven into increasingly tight circles.
I hurt my away from lime green walls and playing televisions Guy Fieri, and even after spending half an hour in line, I still struggled to navigate the dizzying array of dining options.
“Do you want plain fried rice, pork fried rice, chicken fried rice or jerk fried rice?” The person behind the counter asked.
The fusion menu, which apparently offers endless options to customize, forces diners to choose from 15 different proteins, like Chinese egg foo young, Mexican carnitas, and chicken teriyaki, then decide if you want to stuff their selections in a combo bowl, burrito, or quesadilla. Thisamounts to 96,420 potential combinations, or so claimed the owner during the restaurant appearance in 2008 on the wacky food show “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives”.
You can stick to just one kitchen, but why would you want it? The menu encourages you to experiment with the possibilities that come neatly wrapped in a foil box with a snickerdoodle cookie on the side.
I took a breath and ordered: a Chino Combo with chili relleno and barbecued Chinese pork over jerk fried rice and a side of refried black beans, which an employee recommended for their distinctive sweetness. Doubling down on the fusion element, I added a quesadilla stuffed with Chinese emerald chicken with a scallion and ginger sauce, and then decided to cover my bets with aburrito carnitas, which is pure Mexican food.
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What made Chino Bandido a Phoenix classic?
When it first opened in a northern Phoenix mall in 1990, Chino Bandido owners Eve Collins and her late husband Frank put together an unconventional menu of the Chinese dishes Eve ate when ‘she was a child, with Phoenix-style Mexican food and Caribbean standards. The couple were way ahead of the Asian-Mexican fusion, which only really gained national prominence about a decade ago with the rise of food trucks selling Korean tacos.
They called their new restaurant Chino Bandido, Spanish for Chinese bandit, because they had borrowed elements from a number of different cultures. The couple sported the restaurant with a cheeky panda bear wearing a sombrero and handlebar mustache.
Over the years, the couple has constantly grown, randomly adding new rooms to accommodate more clients, such as Eve told The Arizona Republic earlier this year. This summer, she decided to stop the expansion of quilting and look for a more permanent solution. A 6,000 square foot building two miles away offered a more efficient kitchen and the ability to own rather than rent.
What to expect on the menu
The new building on Bell Road and Third Avenue has high ceilings and a sterile ambience similar to a snack bar in a mini-golf park, but some of the charms of the original location are still there, such as the premises wall photographs of children and the enormous black granite statue of Pancho the panda bandit.
I found a seat next to Pancho and started my meal with the Chinese BBQ pork, which was not sticky and red, but dry and brown. The silky black beans were indeed sweet, which was a bit overwhelming, but sort of worked with the peppered jerk fried rice. The chili relleno was not egg and looked like a piece of crispy fried chicken, and the carnitas burrito was more or less a fatty version of the original, but it came without the salsa, so I used soy sauce in place. The snickerdoodle, there was none. With so many customers, they were exhausted earlier in the day.
My last bite was more of a triumph, and it came with a backstory. Years ago as a college student I didn’t quite understand the Chino Bandido concept and berated a family member for trying to order Emerald Chicken in a quesadilla. At Chino Bandido, Emerald Chicken is a riff on the Cantonese classic of poached white chicken with a ginger and green onion sauce. Putting this delicacy in a quesadilla seemed absurd at the time, but absurdity often breeds excellence. The quesadilla I ordered had the typical melted yellow cheese and grated chicken,but the ginger and scallions added a sharpness that cut and was quite nice.
I sat down and watched the stream of customers lining up. One was wearing a shirt with a quote from Anthony Bourdain: “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”
Even though I was alone, I felt like I had learned something about the hundred or so people who flocked to the restaurant, and why they were waiting in such a long line to eat a Chinese quesadilla.
Chino Bandido’s food is not really fusion in the way I expected. It’s not Chinese, Jamaican, or Mexican. The dishes looked little like their originals and seemed more united than their own cuisine, born out of the mind of Eve Collins. She’s still in the kitchen, cooking up foods that have become local classics, imprinting herself on the Phoenix palace for 30 years.
Or: 310 West Bell Road,Phoenix.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
Price: $ 8.10 and $ 9.85 for the bowls; add-ons 95 cents to $ 1.20.
Details: 602-375-3639, chinobandido.com.