Chinese and Mexican street food — but don’t call it fusion

I want dumplings and I want tacos.” That’s exactly what she said, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’m parked in a sunny window of Robie Street Station for a mid-afternoon chat with Kaleigh Burns and Chef Heman Lee, co-owners of this restaurant and El Chino Snack Bar, right next door. Like many in the restaurant industry, when you’re serving food day in, day out, eating properly kind of goes out the window. You find yourself craving the wackiest of flavour combinations and succumbing to unique meldings of global cuisines in the wee hours (donair pizza, anyone?). This is the story of how one restaurant kind of spurned another.

El Chino Snack Bar is Halifax’s first official bar that specializes in traditional street foods from China and Mexico. It also has one of the most extensive tequila lists in the city, with a little mezcal thrown in for good measure. I remember hearing the first murmurs about this place. I was quick to assume it was a fusion of the two cuisines. That is until I darkened the door for the first time last summer and realized the two were indeed quite separate; though they’re awfully tasty side by side.

Chef Heman Lee

From one coast to the other and back again, their current cuisine is fueled by the many memorable food experiences in between. Kaleigh and Heman met when they were just 17 at George Brown College in Toronto; both enrolled in the hospitality and business management program right out of high school. Kaleigh crisscrossed the country, following opportunities in restaurants and hotels in Toronto and Vancouver, notably helping open the Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver. Chef Heman grew up in his family’s restaurant, The Oriental Kitchen. From the age of 13 he was often in the kitchen with his father, but he still insists to this day that he fell into it. Heman spent six years at George Brown, transitioning from hospitality to culinary arts with further specialization in Italian cuisine. Not surprisingly, he ended up at a Michelin-starred, family-run restaurant and hotel in Italy, until his father lured him back to the family’s restaurant. He and Kaleigh were first drawn to Nova Scotia to help friends open a now-popular café in New Glasgow called BaKED. A temporary move of three months turned into a year and a half and left them wanting for more, but they were off for a few more adventures first.

The most formative part of this story is a six-month stint they had in San Francisco working for Heman’s aunt at her restaurant, Uncle Yu’s, offering higher-end Chinese fare. It was also one of the first restaurants to pair Chinese food with fine wines. They describe Aunt Jennifer Yu as a force to be reckoned with, someone you want to do good by, a mentor and friend. This period in California was obviously an impactful one in the development of what El Chino would become. They worked with a predominantly Mexican kitchen crew, preparing and serving Chinese cuisine and then eating Mexican food for staff meals. On their days off, they would visit cantinas and taco trucks, always dissecting dishes to figure out how they could recreate them for themselves. At the end of their time there, Aunt Jennifer bid them to go have fun — with support. And with that, she became their de facto angel investor for their first restaurant dream.

It made sense for them to try first at home in Toronto, where family, friends and established relationships in the industry were. In a short span of time, though, it just wasn’t panning out. They found the climate difficult as new entrepreneurs — expensive and competitive — so they drove back to Nova Scotia and in just two days signed a lease for the old Jane’s on the Common space near Robie and Cunard. Thus, they had a place to work before they had a home. They had a completely different restaurant concept when they arrived, but the second they saw the light coming through the big front windows, they agreed: you just gotta eat breakfast here all day.

Robie Street Station opened in 2014, serving a predominantly all-day breakfast and globally-influenced, steeped-in-comfort classics menu. Breakfast runs the gamut from ham, eggs and baked beans with biscuits to smoked salmon röstis. They both claim the place is built on eggs and potatoes, as opposed to bricks and mortar. They also offer a rounded-out menu of classic burgers, a world of sandwiches ranging from a Vietnamese banh mi to a classic French Croque Madame, and some early El Chino harbingers including taco bowls and tom yum noodle bowls.

Robie Street Station has a bright, spunky diner feel, in complete contrast to its slightly furtive, nocturnal younger brother next door. Seriously, you can almost miss this place with its mirrored windows and nondescript front door. When you enter, you part a dark curtain and walk into an intimate space that holds about 35 people. It definitely has a bit of a secret club or speakeasy kind of feel. Your eye is first drawn to a blue-tiled bar, then up to glowing green, purple, blue and red LED rope lights lining the shelves holding tequila. A large, bright wallpaper mural of Chinese dragons twisting and turning like they’re hungry is mounted on a muted red-clay adobo-looking wall. Tall tops and banquettes line the space and small coloured hanging lamps trail up to a classic red Chinese lantern in the back corner.

When coming up with the concept for El Chino, “We wanted to do something fun and different. Somewhere where if we wanted to eat, we would go.” It was about putting together a small menu that accommodated everybody’s tastes, but also made them happy. It was about presenting two distinctive cuisines as true to form as possible, but never the twain shall meet. This is not fusion food.

“There’s no bumpers on this cuisine,” Heman explains. “Everything is authentic, nothing’s been doctored for Western taste buds.” They usually have their staff rattle through disclaimers tableside — the spicy oil is SPICY oil, for instance, or don’t order the fish balls if you’re expecting fish the way we usually have it prepared in Nova Scotia because they’re Hong Kong curry fish balls. The dumplings on the menu are made using his grandmother’s recipe with pork, chives and soy. They have strived to source their ingredients locally, though many of the seasonings, spices, oils, vinegars and specialty produce are hard to come by here for either cuisine.

For Mexican food lovers, there are nachos, chips and salsa, and three tacos on house-made corn tortillas — pork, fish and a vegetarian version with potato. The Chinese part of the menu is a little more extensive. Outside of the aforementioned dumplings and fish balls, there are hot, sour, sweet and sticky General Tao chicken wings, classic pork belly bao buns à la David Chang, and a delicious yet surprisingly spicy palate cleanser — a shaved, marinated cucumber salad with garlic, soy and chili.

For dessert, there’s a sweet empanada, which is a delicate pastry pocket with a filling that changes seasonally, and an ice cream sandwich sandwiched between a deep-fried, greasy bao bun. This ain’t the ice cream sandwich of your youth from the corner store by your school. This is one you’re happily getting all over yourself after a few too many margaritas.

At any given time, there are about 25 different tequilas on offer, running from $8 to $400. The classic margarita, which is a lovely, well-balanced and very drinkable version, if I do say so myself, was developed by Kaleigh. She also curates flights of tequilas based on tasting one brand or by añejo (age). I just have a feeling that you could very easily get lost in a tequila space with her at the bar.

Kaleigh clearly owns the front of house, cajoling with her regulars on a first-name basis. Heman tends to take more of a backseat; it’s rare to catch sight of him outside of the kitchen. He knows the customers by what they order … “‘bacon cheeseburger no onions’ is in da house!” The notion of people being known by what they regularly order is a funny one to me. I suppose everyone is a little guilty of getting stuck on a plate from time to time; you can just call me “chicken shawarma platter extra chicken extra garlic sauce” or by my other alias these days, “oysters and jojos.” We can play name that restaurant.

It’s a fun night out here. I have often found myself here sharing plates with friends, drinking margaritas and inevitably razzing my cohorts as the drinks take their sassy hold. Damn you, tequila. There’s got to be a term for leaving a restaurant with blacked-out windows and forgetting you have an audience the second you step out the front door (or perhaps it’s the margaritas). It certainly makes for a great sport if you score a table near the front. It’s also not unusual to have a rush at 11 pm of late-night snackers, those seeking out one last nightcap — a cerveza and a bowl of dumplings, for instance. “If I wasn’t behind the bar, I would eat that,” Kaleigh affirms.

You have to remember that they haven’t had the chance to live out their original restaurant concept. You just never know what these two will have up their sleeves next. It’s all about the tacos, dumplings and tequila … for the moment. “We’re here for the long haul,” Kaleigh says. “I’m from Toronto, but my home is in Nova Scotia now.” And for the record, Aunt Jennifer has been twice and approves.

El Chino is open from Wednesday to Saturday, 6 pm ’til late, and the kitchen usually closes around midnight. And, if you happen to find you’ve enjoyed yourself a little too much the night before, there just happens to be a great breakfast place right next door to cure what ails ya.