Wednesday, October 9

Local Business Spotlight: El Chinito Group - Pop Up Restaurant

Umeshu Sangrias - all you can drink!
One of my friends texted me a cryptic invite to a Sunday brunch located at some random apartment complex. She did not have more information for me than this online menu. We went anyway because we're daring food ninjas.

The brunch was hosted by El Chinito Group, run by Dianna and Kha, fiances and former San Jose residents until they moved to Chicago so Kha could pursue his culinary passions. Luckily, San Jose can reclaim these two as our own. Kha is a graduate of the local Professional Culinary Institute of Campbell. He has worked in famed kitchens such as Michelin starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga, two Michelin starred Charlie Trotters in Chicago, Balena Chicago, and Ovie Bar and Grill. He digs deeper into his culinary journey and inspirations in the transcript of our interview after the break below.

Having spent years in professional kitchens, Kha picked up the nickname "El Chinito" which means "Little China Man" by his Latino peers although he is Vietnamese. The name stuck and he eventually opened El Chinito Group, serving monthly pop up meals with experimental menus. The meals take place at different locations, they can be lunch, dinner, cocktails, or anything in between. El Chinito will list a suggested contribution amount and you can contribute what you can or want anonymously.

For the brunch menu, you actually get a choice between one of two appetizers, one of two entrees, and one of two desserts with bottomless plum wine sangria. I went with a friend and we ordered one of everything.

Tomato Tarte Tatine, strawberries, tequila basil sabayon
I'm not quite sure this dish worked. The separate elements were interesting but the strawberries and cream were sweet and the tomato tarte with phyllo dough was savory. I think they could be taken apart and embellished with something else to become two individual savory and sweet appetizers. Strawberries and cream were good though.

Monkey bread, nori, chocolate
This was less complex and less interesting but a safer option than the tomato tartine. Once dipped in chocolate, you barely taste the nori and its just like eating monkey bread in chocolate sauce. Not too bad.

Clams, boiled egg, chilled soba, mushrooms, Red Boat dashi.
This soba dish was a real stand out star. It is deceptively simple looking and tastes very homely, if you grew up in an Asian household. I appreciate the refreshing and delicious but simple appeal because I have attempted chilled soba dishes with mixed mushrooms before and the results were not like this. I wish I took a picture of the runny yolk in the egg when I broke it apart. The crunchy radish and baby arugula, the pickled celery, the 7 kinds of mushrooms, the dashi fortified with clams...this dish is perfect. I still want more.

Kofte, scrambled egg, smashed potatoes, yogurt hollandaise
This is a lamb sausage with omelet in a crepe and potatoes smashed-not mashed. The hollandaise sauce was made with yogurt and not butter. It was nice to have a hearty and more traditional brunch fare to balance the rest of the menu items.

Cayenne walnut and black sesame ice cream
The black sesame ice cream was good. We finished it quickly. I would not have chosen cayenne as the spice for the cayenne walnut ice cream. The ice cream actually starts off really decadent, sweet, and nutty. In 3-4 seconds the cayenne hits and it's too strong. It's not spicy per se but the cayenne note does not blend well with the rest of the ice cream which was really excellent. It has potential.

Pop up restaurants are a great way for aspiring chefs to test new menus without commitment or fear of failure. There's no capital costs in buying your own equipment and no overhead cost in hiring any labor. Kha cooked and Dianna worked front of house. Together they also sourced and procured ingredients. It's a two person show for the most part. Without these burdens, the chef is free to experiment and that is exactly what we got: menu items that pushed the boundaries of restaurant offerings, uninhibited by the restrictions of marketability. Does it matter if cayenne walnut ice cream is going to be the big seller when next month's menu will be entirely different? No. It's all about a chef sharing his craft with interested diners who pay what they can or want to and hopefully open their taste buds to new experiences in the process. I'm really glad I made the trek to a random apartment complex on a Sunday morning. How else would I have tried that amazing soba dish?

The next meal sounds even better. It's a sake pairing hosted on Oct 24-27.

Full transcript of my interview with the chef, Kha Lu after the page break

What is El Chinito Group? What does the name mean? 

El Chinito is the nickname I was given by pretty much every latino I have worked with in a kitchen.  It means "Little China Man", even though I am Vietnamese.  There have even been cases where I would be Chinito #2.


Who runs it and what are their backgrounds?  Who is the chef and what is their culinary background?

El Chinito is run solely by me and my fiance, Dianna Nguyen.  Dianna Nguyen's background lies in health administration, and does all the non-cooking stuff such as menus, social media, bookkeeping, etc.
As for me, I was actually a career-changer.  I studied business economics at UC Santa Barbara only to drop out 1 quarter short of graduating because I realized that it was not for me.  By that point I had already gotten my real estate, mortgage broker, AND series 3 licenses.  Fast forward a few life changing events, and I ended up accidentally in the professional kitchen.
I then went to Professional Culinary Institute of Campbell, and graduated in 2008, after which I became sous-chef at a small french/vietnamese bistro in San Jose called White Shallot.  I left there in 2009 and went to Michelin-starred The Plumed Horse in Saratoga when I had learned that it was rebuilt as a new restaurant by Chef Peter Armellino; my meal at Aqua in 2004 (Chef Armellino was Chef de Cuisine there at the time) was what really opened my mind to the culinary world.  After spending a year there, we decided to pack our things and drive out east to Chicago so that I may work on my skills in an urban environment.  I immediately got a job at Charlie Trotter's 2 michelin starred eponymous restaurant, and worked my a** off for a year (80+ hours a week), after which I became part of the opening team for Balena, an italian-inspired restaurant.  In late 2012, I left Balena to help open Ovie Bar and Grill, also in Chicago, before leaving to go back to San Jose, California summer of 2013, where I started El Chinito Group with my fiance.

How do your events work, how often are they held, what type of events do you have, what is the price range?

We try and provide a unique dining experience, so that means that we try to stray away from typical things one might expect in restaurant settings.  For instance, the menu might seem unusual at times, but it's not because it won't be delicious and well thought out, but because it may never end up in a restaurant menu for whatever reason.  It's one of the perks of doing short-lived menus; you don't have to worry about having menu items that won't sell.  We try and provide a different experience with each popup, so far we have done 5-course tastings, cocktail receptions, and brunch.  We have many, many more concepts that we want to run through, ranging from Southeast Asian street food to 14 course Kaiseki menus.  We're really just trying to have fun and hopefully that translates to our guests.
Our events are held once a month, and the prices vary greatly depending on the menu, whether or not there will be provided beverages, wine pairings, etc.  We really do try and provide a value though, and we do not profit at all from doing this.  That is why we only provide a suggested price based on the cost we incur, and only ask people to contribute what they can or want to based on their experience (anonymously, if they wish).  It is much more important for us to reach out to as many people as we can and help guide people who may not be foodies into food culture in an affordable and approachable manner.  Any profit we do make goes into buying equipment, plates, flatware, etc. for future popups.

What can people expect at one of your events?

The food and decor varies greatly depending on location, but they can always expect very thoughtful and *hopefully* delicious food.  They can also expect a very personable service, as we like to get to know the people who dine with us.  We welcome people to watch us cook and really treat us like friends or family and get to know how the food was made.  We love honest feedback and we love how we are able to grow with our guests.

What is the company's mission, ie how do you see this growing in the next few years?

This started out as just a side project, and we don't really intend to do it more than once a month.  My goal with El Chinito is to be able to open people's minds to foods they may never try on their own, which is why I emphasize making it affordable and approachable.  When it comes to food, my mind is all over the place.  I could wake up and want to make fresh corn tortillas, and then end the day making Burmese food.  Having El Chinito is a great outlet for me to concentrate my thoughts into dishes that allow my guests to peek into different cultures that I respect and love, through my palate.  It allows both me and my guests to further appreciate what different cultures have to bring in terms of food culture.  I don't really know how it will grow, but I am already very happy with how things are now and feel blessed to have people who appreciate what I do and continue to support me.

Why was the brunch named Mike Tyson's Brunch Out? What was the theme of the food?

When we decided to do a Sunday brunch,  I was a little conflicted because I'm not a big fan of heavy foods.  I knew that people kind of expect something heavy and filling when it comes to brunch so I had to somehow compromise the two.  That's how I came up with the idea to use yogurt instead of butter to make the hollandaise for the lamb sausage, and giving the option to have the healthier alternative of a light, chilled noodle soup. When coming up with a name for our brunch, I immediately thought of an old Nintendo game I used to play called "Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!!"  It just stuck with me.  Embarrassingly, I also considered "Brunches of Bananas," "Brunchapalooza!" and "Leakfast."  I feel pretty good about not going with those names.

Which elements of the menu were home made?

My rule has always been that if something can be made in house, then I'll make it in house, the exception being things that just come out better done by machine.  Everything from grinding my own mustard to grinding my own sausage I do in house.  Out of this brunch menu, the ONLY things that I did not make were the soba noodles and the phyllo dough, because quite frankly, the machine does it better and without any additives.

How were the clams used in the savory chilled soba dish?

A lot of people asked this question, and I should have been more clear with them when the dish was described.  Because there was a broth, I like to do the clams a little differently.  First, I BARELY cook all the clams in sake, just to the point where they haven't opened, but can be pried open.  Then, I open them all, and remove the meat from the foot of the clam.  I then throw in the shells, the feet, and the broth into a pot with kombu and use that as the base for my dashi broth.  So the actual clam meat in the dish probably looked a little different than what people are used to with the feet removed so most people assumed it was just one of the 7 mushrooms we used in the dish.  But the dashi fortified with the clam scraps and Red Boat fish sauce really gives it a nice ocean-y taste to it that I find appealing in a chilled broth.

What fruits were in the sangria? Any other alcohol besides Umeshu?

It was actually a fairly simple sangria.  The details are what made it so good.  First of all, I used Koshu Plum Wine from Takara Sake in Berkeley.  We actually drove up to their production plant and got to try 10 different sake and flavored sake in choosing the right one for our sangria.  We settled on the Koshu Plum Wine because it had a nice fruity taste without being overbearing and most importantly, it was sake based (the other 2 plum wines they make are wine based).  One of the downfalls of using wine to make sangrias is that you cannot marinate the fruit for too long because once you open the wine, it will start to oxidize and lose it's bright notes, primarily acidity, so most people only recommend soaking the sangria no more than 2 hours before serving.  However, with sake, which has no inherent acidity, it does not noticeably oxidize, allowing us to really infuse the fruit into it over several days without fear of losing any flavors of the sake.  We used apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots, lemon, and lime (taking the citrus out after a day to prevent bitter notes from the rind).

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