We can't tell you how or why José Andrés continues to be hyper-creative so deep into his distinguished career. He's enjoyed a ton of business success and has nabbed almost every honor possible, picking up the James Beard Award as the nation's most outstanding chef just last month. But the 41-year-old Spanish-born chef is still hustling like crazy, opening a pair of restaurants at the new 50-story Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino in Las Vegas last fall.
One, the fourth iteration of his Spanish tapas concept Jaleo, is a cleverly updated version of the three Jaleos Andrés oversees back home in Washington, DC. Not a huge stretch for Andrés, partner Rob Wilder and their ThinkFoodGroup colleagues. ››
But their second Cosmopolitan venture — China Poblano — pushed Andrés and ThinkFoodGroup to their limits. It's the kind of wild new concept you just don't see a chef of his stature attempt.
Consider: How did a guy who earlier last fall was teaching molecular gastronomy at Harvard wind up selling street food from China and Mexico to Las Vegas casino-goers just a couple of months later?
Andrés argues that China Poblano was right up his alley. He already had one restaurant, Oyamel, which serves a refined version of urban Mexican cuisine back in DC. Indeed, more than a few items listed on Oyamel's menu can now be had at China Poblano. As for the Chinese component, research trips to Shanghai, Beijing and Chinatowns throughout the U.S. brought Andrés and his culinary team up to speed on the type of Chinese food that would fit into the China Poblano concept.
“At first China and Mexico may not appear to be similar cultures, but actually, there is a strong resemblance and they have a surprising connection,” he says. “Both countries have very alive, complex and regional cuisines with amazing street food in traditional markets and town centers. In both countries there is an element of fun and sharing at the table, something we want to recreate at China Poblano.”
What resulted was a vibrantly designed 130-seat restaurant where the 56-item menu offers dual cuisines on a side-by-side basis. The restaurant's tag line, “Noodles and Tacos,” neatly sums it up.
The Chinese portion of the menu has three sections. The Dim Sum lineup, nine items total, includes Happy Buddha Vegetable Spring Rolls (three pieces for $10.88); When Pigs Fly (four steamed buns filled with Chinese barbeque pork, $9.88); and North Meets South Jiaozi (seven pieces, pork/water chestnuts/dried shrimp/fresh peanuts, $9.88).
Noodles & Soups lists 12 offerings: Swallow A Cloud (Hong Kong wonton/shrimp/pork/bok choy, $14); Dan Dan Mian (hand-cut wheat noodles, spicy pork sauce ($10); Don't Be Jealous (hot and sour soup/pork/tofu/bamboo shoots/dried mushrooms, $8.88); and Rainbow Congee (Chinese sausage/snow peas/carrots $8.88). Each of the above can be upgraded with a shot of Shirley Lee XO sauce for an additional $3.88.
Pozole Rojo (pork and hominy stew, $8, $12 if served with a shot of Reposado tequila) and Caldo Tlalpeño (chicken vegetable soup, $8) are two Mexican-style items that show up in this otherwise all-Chinese part of the menu.
The third Chinese-specific part of China Poblano's menu is simply labeled “From China.” The signature item here is the red braised pork Rou Jia Mo Street Sandwich ($8.88). The remaining ten dishes include Dancing Eggplant (eggplant, soy sauce, bonito flakes, black garlic, $8.88) and Nice, But Naughty (sautéed lotus root/fresh pea shoots/sesame, $9.88).
Andrés went with a simplified assortment on the Mexican portion of the menu. The 11-item taco (two per order) lineup includes such mainstream offerings as Pescado Frito, a fish taco, for $11.88; and Pollo a la Parilla, grilled chicken in a mole sauce that costs $8. More challenging options are the eerie-sounding Silencio (duck tongue/rambutan fruit, $9) and a lone crossover item, Viva China (soft beef tendon/Kumamoto oyster/scallions/Sichuan peppercorn sauce, $8).
The “From Mexico” aspect is a 13-choice selection of mostly familiar items (hand-made guacamole, $12; Chilaquiles, $9) and a few challenging ones (Like Water for Chocolate, fried quail/dragon fruit/rose petals/chestnut and dragon fruit sauce, $15; Gaspacho Morelia, pineapple/cucumber/jicama/dragon fruit/queso fresco/chile pequin, $10). Chips and salsa? $4.
Desserts, six in all, come from both cuisines. Tres Lychees ($8) is billed as a new take on the Mexican classic, while Happy Buddha Giggling Taking A Bath (shaky belly strawberry gelatin) has to be a food cost leader at $10 a pop.
The beverage menu offers “Mexico Cocktails” (one Mimosa, $8.88; four Margaritas, $11-$12) and “China Cocktails” (Singapore Sling, $11; Mai Taiwan, $11. There's a short wine list and six beers, three each from Mexico and China. Tea enthusiasts have a choice of 10 different types; at $6 for a small pot, it has to be a cash cow.
There's a brunch menu, too, served 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Otherwise, China Poblano opens at 11:30 a.m. and takes reservations through 11 p.m. It's a sweet setup, with twin walk-up windows — one for Chinese food, one for Mexican, each with a big neon “OPEN” sign — flanking the restaurant's entrance. On weekends, China Poblano cycles through five dayparts — brunch, lunch, dinner, late-night dining and all-day takeout. The place is set up for high volume, which it's been getting since it opened.
It's no wonder. Andrés is as masterful at making a buck as he is at creating edgy cuisine. He's got all the bases covered at the Cosmopolitan, where his fans can dine at his signature tapas restaurant Jaleo; head to the rear of its dining room to take one of the eight places at é, a restaurant-within-a-restaurant where culinary gastronomy reigns (similar to minibar at his Cafe Atlantico in DC) and the tab is $250 per head; or grab something wallet-friendly at China Poblano. It's more evidence that Andrés and Wilder, winners of RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY'S 2010 Richard Melman Award, are a creative force to be reckoned with. These two know how to execute a lucrative business plan even while operating on the culinary cutting edge. Which is why we're expecting to see more China Poblanos in the future.