On opening weekend in early July, Chino Bandido was an indoor amusement park of jerk chicken and Chinese burritos. The masses crowding into the restaurant’s new location formed a roller coaster of a line that weaved into tighter and tighter circles.
“Would you like plain fried rice, pork fried rice, chicken fried rice or jerk fried rice?” asked the person behind the counter.
The fusion menu, which offers seemingly infinite options to customize, requires diners to choose from 15 different proteins, like Chinese egg foo young, Mexican carnitas and teriyaki chicken, and then decide whether to stuff their selections into a combo bowl, a burrito or a quesadilla. That amounts to 96,420 potential combinations, or so claimed the owner during the restaurant’s 2008 appearance on the zany food show “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.”
You can stick to one cuisine, but why would you want to? The menu encourages you to experiment with the possibilities, which come packaged neatly in a tinfoil box with a snickerdoodle cookie on the side.
I took a breath, and ordered: one Chino Combo with a chile relleno and Chinese barbecue pork over jerk fried rice and a side of the 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 ginger scallion sauce, and then decided to hedge my bets with acarnitas burrito, which is pure Mexican food.
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What made Chino Bandido a Phoenix classic?
When it opened in a north Phoenix strip mall in 1990, Chino Bandido owners Eve Collins and her late husband Frank patched together an unconventional menu comprised of the Chinese dishes Eve ate as a child with some Phoenix-style Mexican food and Caribbean standards thrown in. The couple were way ahead of the curve for Asian-Mexican fusion, which didn’t really gain national prominence until 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 emblazoned the restaurant with a cheeky panda bear dressed in a sombrero and a handlebar mustache.
Over the years the couple constantly expanded, haphazardly adding new rooms to fit in more customers, as Eve told The Arizona Republic earlier this year. This summer she decided to stop patchwork expansion and look for a more permanent fix. A 6,000-square-foot building 2 miles away offered a more efficient kitchen and the opportunity 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 vibe akin to a snack bar at a mini golf park, but some of the charms of the original location are still there, like the wall of local kids’ photographs and the enormous black granite statue of Pancho the panda bandit.
I found a seat next to Pancho and began my meal with the Chinese barbecue pork, which was not sticky and red, but dry and brown. The silken black beans were indeed sweet, which was a little overpowering, but somehow worked with the peppery jerk fried rice. The chile relleno was not eggy, and looked like a piece of crunchy fried chicken, and the carnitas burrito was more or less a fatty version of the original, but it came with no salsa, so I used soy sauce instead. The snickerdoodle, there was not. With so many customers, they had run out earlier in the day.
My final 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 I chastised a family member for trying to order the Emerald chicken in a quesadilla. At Chino Bandido, Emerald chicken is a riff on the Cantonese classic of poached white chicken with ginger and scallion sauce. To put this delicacy in a quesadilla seemed absurd at the time, but absurdity often breeds excellence. The quesadilla I’d ordered had the typical melted yellow cheese and shredded chicken,but the ginger and scallions added a sharpness that cut through and was quite pleasing.
I sat back and watched the stream of patrons standing in line. One was wearing a shirt with an Anthony Bourdain quote: “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”
Even though I was alone, I felt like I’d learned something about the hundred or so people streaming through the restaurant, and why they’d wait in such a long line to eat a Chinese quesadilla.
Chino Bandido’s food isn’t really fusion in the sense that I’d expected. It’s not Chinese or Jamaican or Mexican. The dishes tasted little like their originals, and seemed more united as their own cuisine, born straight from the mind of Eve Collins. She is still in the kitchen, making the foods that have become local classics, imprinting themselves on the Phoenix palate for the past 30 years.
Where: 310 W. Bell Road,Phoenix.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Price: $8.10 and $9.85 for bowls; add-ons 95 cents to $1.20.
Details: 602-375-3639, chinobandido.com.