I wasn’t ready to try the smoked pork chop with raisin and cascabel chile mole until our third visit to Chalino, because it wasn’t until then that I was prepared to trust chefs Johnny Leach and Dave Haddow to serve me something (at least to this raisin-hater) that had the potential to be a $26 disaster.
But by the time I had eaten my way through a couple dinners at this “restaurant inspired by Mexico” whose influences span the globe, I knew I was in good hands. And, as it turns out, that pork chop may be one of the best things on a menu full of tasty bites. The super flavorful Lan-Roc pork from eastern Oregon is cold-smoked and brined for maximum juiciness, topped with spring greens, and swirled with a mole that rendered those raisins complex and balanced, with the pork bone placed to the side (you will pick it up and chew the meat off ).
At the corner of Fremont and Williams, an area being re-developed faster than contractors can fire a nail gun, restaurants have also been opening at hyper speed. Most have been ambitious concepts with poor execution, or, even worse, cynical money-makers that do nothing to advance the city’s food culture. Chalino breaks this mold with inventiveness and new flavors sure to surprise even the most jaded palate.
While you can make reservations, it’s not so busy (yet) that you can’t grab a table for four on a weeknight without much of a wait. All the better to order a pre-dinner drink, particularly the umami-saturated Michelada ($8), a tall boy of Tecate to be poured gradually into a glass with lime, hot sauce, bitters, and beef stock, which sounds weird but definitely works. A classic Paloma ($10) was grand, while the Paradise en Español ($12), with rum, bourbon, and horchata was sweet without going over the top.
It’s not a bad idea to sit at the chef’s counter, decorated with tiles that give the space a look reminiscent of the artwork in one of my favorite childhood books, The Rainbow Fish, with blues and greens punctuated with pops of bright yellow and coral. It’s inside the new super-sleek One North office building, and while it’s got the standard concrete features of modern construction, quirky neon artwork of cacti and a huge street mural-style print give it personality.
That character definitely spills over into the food, starting with the chips and salsa. The tortilla strips are fresh and crisp, and pair best with a tomatillo salsa that subs out cilantro for Thai basil, creating a blend that had one of my dining companions scraping out the last drop. Feel free to drop $16 for all three of the salsas plus a bowl of guac, whose only shortcoming is not being mashed nearly enough.
Save a chip for the ceviches, especially the gorgeous halibut ($18), whose firm flesh stands up to bitter oranges and the crunch of watermelon radish. The tostadas come equipped with their own crunch: plan on sharing the popular Carnitas Vietnamitas ($6) with fish sauce punching up the crispy yet tender pork, and the smoked trout ($8), which puts the Midwest into play with its pickled peppers, deviled egg “salsa,” and celery. Stay away from the pig head tostada: I hardly ever send things back, but that dish was inedibly salty and the meat had the texture of cold fat.
Naturally, the Northwest’s seasons play a big role, and I’d scoot in ASAP to get an order of the sopes ($12) before wild nettles are gone. Masa cups turned emerald from the nettles hold chorizo, cauliflower, and a tart fermented serrano salsa for a bite I could eat all day.
While an order of the fried chicken ($22) is good for a group, save room for the desserts from Le Pigeon pastry chef Helen Jo (who is married to Leach): especially the so very creamy roasted pineapple ice cream, which tastes more like pineapple than the fruit itself.
Leach told me that due to construction delays, they had basically zero time in the kitchen to test recipes and get comfortable. While there are tweaks to be made, it’s incredible to see what’s coming out of the kitchen at nearly three months in. I can’t wait to see what this summer brings.