…in The Big Lebowski “The Stranger” says to Lebowski “I like your style, Dude”…that pretty much sums up how I feel about Jose Andres. Having been to Comme Ca earlier in the week I saw Andres pacing circles around the inside of Jaleo – The Cosmopolitan had been open for two days and the restaurant was not yet fully operational. When I left Comme Ca he was standing outside and I walked up, said hello, and told him how I’d really enjoyed The Bazaar, Zaytinya, and Café Atlantico – and jokingly asked who I had to call to get a seat at minibar. He seemed a nice fellow, though clearly his mind was on other things during our brief chat. Excited as I was about his newest concept I told the chef we’d be visiting China Poblano later in the week and he said “it’s my best looking restaurant yet and the menu design has been amazing – be sure to order some tacos.”
Conceptually “Chinese Mexican fusion,” China Poblano is billed as a blending of the two rich cultures. Located on the 2nd floor of the Cosmopolitan somewhat hidden in the back, the restaurant is certainly eye catching. With an entryway shaped like Buddha and “Mexican Takeout” windows on either side the campy feel is palpable, but acceptable. With an interior of communal and separate dining tables, a noodle making station, and wall decorations ranging from Chinese Opera Masks and Lanterns to Luchador Masks and Oaxacan carvings the interior was colorful to say the least. In addition to the fixed objects there were also large morphing murals – projections of famous and peasant Chinese and Mexican individuals. Even the restroom continued the theme – papered in money from each country.
To see the restaurant is to love it – or perhaps to hate it depending on your taste – it is certainly over the top.
With reservations made and my sister and I running late shopping our mother and aunt would arrive at the restaurant before us to collect on the noon reservation, yet entering the doors around 12:10pm it actually wasn’t my family who first caught my eye, but rather Chef Andres who was wandering the premises. A dervish of energy the Chef was both in and out of the kitchen – at one moment visibly inspecting dishes at the pass and the next out chatting with clients, taking pictures, and helping the front of the house. Clearly splitting time between Jaleo and China Poblano his visits to diners were brief and seemingly orchestrated by a large man who would turn out to be the dining room manager. Though Jose never stopped by our table I was able to obtain a signed menu by asking the manager – another in my growing collection.
After finding the ladies (already seated at one of the large communal tables beneath the giant bubble of changing faces and images) we were greeted quickly by our server Brea and noticed menus were already in place as mom and aunt had already ordered Iced Tea ($4 each,) Chips and Salsa fresh tortilla chips/house-made chipotle salsa ($4,) and Guacamole made one-by-one/fresh tortillas ($12.) With the chips, salsa, and tortillas all fairly standard I was somewhat disappointed when my mother told me the salsa was not made tableside a la Café Atlantico – but it sure was good with lots of garlic and cilantro accenting the creamy yet chunky avocado.
With a $5 (10oz) diet coke ordered by my sister we pondered the admittedly eclectic menu for some time before placing orders – admittedly the service at this point was a tad overbearing with Brea eyeing our table frequently and stopping by thrice in a short period of time. With orders placed, however, I will note that the service at China Poblano was exemplary with dishes arriving randomly with excellent descriptions and not in a huge bolus (ie Julian Serrano.) Additionally, despite the bustling nature of the loud restaurant our waters never reached less than half empty, plates and paper napkins (in a dispenser, you’ll need ‘em for those tacos) plus silverware were quickly bussed away by ancillary staff and replaced before they were ever missed.
Beginning first with a round of tacos, we ordered four different options amongst the group. I will note that at the time of our visit the menu was still in development and tacos were sold solo as opposed to in pairs – some options were also cheaper. Arriving in warm soft shells and approximately three bites each the first tastes of taco would come from Langosta. Described as meaty lobster/mango/arbol chile sauce ($16 for 2 now, $6/e prev) the flavors were good, but unfortunately the lobster was slightly overcooked and I felt the chile sauce overwhelmed the subtleties of the sweet crustacean.
Faring better than the lobster would be Silencio tacos - duck tongue/rambutan fruit ($4.5/e.) Unfamiliar with rambutan until this time I was impressed by the fleshy sweet fruit and its ability to temper the salty, savory, and somewhat chewy tongues. While not as nuanced as some of the other tacos, these are definitely worth checking out if only to experience the ingredients at a relatively cheap price.
The Cochinita tacos, described as Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork/marinated onions ($4/e) were good, but rather expected and unidimensional. Savory and sweet the pork and onions melded nicely, but in total the flavor was no better or worse than a good pork taco anywhere else.
The final taco selection would be the best of the group and my favorite savory of the meal - Carnitas braised baby pig/pork rinds/spicy salsa verde cruda ($4/e prev.) With the braised baby pig perfectly done – supple, moist and flavorful – the addition of pork rinds added a lovely degree of crunch and saltiness. Tempering the other two dishes and adding a bit of spice plus vegetal acidity the salsa was spicy without being overly so – in my opinion they should serve this salsa instead of the chipotle version with the tortilla chips.
The next dish to arrive would be our worst of the meal - Coctel de Camarones fresh shrimp/jumbo lump crab meat/tomato/avocado ($12.) Essentially a whole lot of underwhelming salsa in a bowl with a couple of snappy sweet shrimp, thin shreds of crab, and chunks of avocado plus tortillas for dunking it was almost as if someone forgot to add salt, or spice, or vinegar, or really anything other than the listed ingredients which simply were not of all that impressive quality.
Seemingly in defiance of the Coctel, the other tomato based dish we ordered - Love Is In the Air heirloom tomatoes/sugar air ($8.88) was much simpler in ingredients and much more complex in flavor. Nicely presented in a large bowl with what must have been two fresh whole tomatoes and a splash of vinegar the dish was topped with an “mg” manufactured foam full of delicate sweetness that acted only to enhance the natural flavors of the tomatoes beneath.
Interestingly presented, Lamb Pot Stickers Stuck on You vegetables/crispy lace ($11.88 now, $8.88 at our visit) delivered five pockets of lamb, cabbage, radish, and smoky seasonings inside a crispy lace shell. While slightly oily, the lamb itself was impressively cooked and not a bit gamey – with the mélange of vegetables elevated by the cumin and black pepper this dish was clever and tasty with obvious contributions from both Hispanic and Chinese food cultures.
Leaning more towards the Chinese half of the menu for our larger dishes, Ocean Nest scallops/crab/shrimp/pan-fried egg noodles/seasonal vegetables ( $10 at our visit and now $22 w/ king crab/lobster) would be a successful yet rather ordinary dish. With crispy noodles resting in a gentle fish broth at the base and three head-on shrimp, three scallops, and a few chunks of crab interspersed with bok choy, spinach, and onions the flavors all worked and the textures were nicely done – at $10 the dish was a steal, but lobster or not I don’t think I’d recommend it at the current price point unless there was a good deal more seafood.
The second larger plate, The Unruly Monk with hand-cut noodles/bok choy/wild wood ear mushrooms/poached egg ($16) was ordered because we saw the chef hand stretching noodles at the counters. Served in an enormous bowl with perhaps a half liter of broth, boiled bok choy, a single egg, and a plethora of mushrooms the dish would be a nearly mirror experience of the Ocean Nest – a nicely executed dish, but no better than could be made at a local Chinese restaurant in most mid-sized US cities. With the creamy egg definitely adding its characteristic creamy mouth feel to the dish I will note that my sister, who ate the majority of this dish, felt rather ill the rest of the day and stated that she simply couldn’t get the taste of egg out of her stomach/throat until nearly 24 hours later.
Full and largely uninspired by the dessert menu we decided to order one dessert and share. Opting for the “Tres Lychees – a new take on the Mexican classic” ($8) this dish was obviously another attempt at fusion and while it was light and flavorful, the taste was somewhat “minty” which blended with the lime to create a seemingly mojito flavored crema atop a sweet biscuit. An interesting concept I’m simply not a fan of minty desserts and the concept seemed a tad “forced” – perhaps it would be better with more milky sweetness and less of the minty nuances.
In the end I think the verdict is still out on China Poblano – I’m not willing to rule it out, but I’m also not ready to say the “concept” (which is exactly what it is) “works.” While certain dishes worked to great effect, others merely represented decent versions of Americanized ethnic food, and some were simply underwhelming. Looking at the menu only 2 weeks after my visit I already see many changes and given Andres’ propensity for exploration I’ve no doubt the menu will continue to evolve as they find what works and doesn’t – I only hope the prices don’t continue to trend upwards unless the food does, as well.