Mexican history and folklore recount the story of a remarkable woman who would come to be venerated as a holy woman and prophetess. Born to nobility in India and possessing remarkable beauty, she was kidnapped as a young child and brought to Mexico, an intended gift to the Viceroy of Mexico whose personal harem of gorgeous women was known far and wide. When she arrived in Acapulco on a Chinese ship, people were in awe of her breathtaking appearance and exotic ensemble, detailed with dazzling sequins and complex embroidery. Her stye would come to be imitated far and wide by Mexican women who called it and her China Poblana which translates literally to “Chinese Pueblan.” At the time, China was a term used to describe the entire Far East and all Asians.
Instead of winding up one of the Viceroy’s concubines, she was adopted by a childless couple from Puebla who loved and raised her as their own daughter. An extremely attractive and capable young woman, she nonetheless opted for a spartan life in a convent. Though she did not take her vows as a nun, she did lead an ascetic life and was reputed to have had visions of angels as well as long conversations with the Virgin Mary. Until her death at the age of 82, she was frequently consulted by the clergy. Her tomb in the Sacristy of the Jesuit Temple of Puebla is still known today as the Tumba de la China Poblana, the Tomb of the China Poblana.
Celebrated chef, restaurant impresario and television glitterati Jose Andres pays tribute to the idea of East meets West with one of his signature concept restaurants that presents a unique way of preparing and serving Mexican and Chinese foods. Las Vegas Weekly called China Poblano “quite simply the perfect restaurant for today’s hipster foodie.” Fittingly, it’s housed in The Cosmopolitan, a 3.9 billion dollar luxury resort casino and hotel on the Las Vegas strip. The Cosmopolitan lives up to its name; it’s hip, chic and happening, the place to be seen and to espy the hipsters who frequent this Sinatra cool hot spot.
China Poblano is not a fusion restaurant per se in that it doesn’t take Mexican and Chinese dishes and transform the diverse and certainly disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients of the two very different nations to form an entirely new genre. Instead, the restaurant serves Mexican dishes and it serves Chinese dishes and the twain…well, occasionally it does meet. Jose Andres has pondered “If Mexico hadn’t shared its chiles with China, would we have spicy Chinese food?” Obviously he’s grateful for that peppery philanthropy.
China Poblano is an over-the-top loud and colorful restaurant that presents a stunning visual and olfactory sensory experience most will find fun though some may find aspects of the experience offensive. Located on the third floor of the stunning Cosmopolitan, it’s got some can’t miss qualities that grab you as you’re walking toward it. The entrance is shaped like a fat Buddha in a lotus position. Flanking the entrance are two take-out windows: “Chinese Food” on the left and “Mexican Food” on the right.
Behind the Chinese window, you’ll find an exhibition dumpling, noodle and dim sum station on one side with an industrious kitchen staff hard at work hand-crafting and plating exquisite Chinese items. Behind the Mexican window is an exhibition tortilla and taco prep kitchen where you can watch the delicate practice of creating edible art. On a wall to the right is a digital photography display which rotates historical figures from both China and Mexico. The notion of Chairman Mao and Frida Kahlo overseeing the restaurant may not be intended as an effrontery, but we did run into an elderly Asian who found Mao’s countenance offensive.
Hanging from the ceiling are a phalanx of bicycle wheels, perhaps a playful recognition of the plenitude of the ubiquitous two-wheeled conveyance in China. A stair-step wall is dedicated to statues not entirely unlike the terracotta soldiers unearthed several years ago, but decidedly less military. Other walls are accented with colorful Chinese and Mexican masks. Seating is rather casual–communal wooden tables, each with a 50s-style metal red napkin dispenser. The restaurant is not nearly as commodious as most Vegas casino eateries, but you’re also not sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbors either.
Servers, dressed in sharp black Mao-styled jackets with Chinese and Mexican symbols, are attentive and friendly, working in tandem to meet the needs of their guests. You might be surprised at just how well informed they are on all aspects of the restaurant concept. You might even be graced by the chef (not Jose Andres) delivering a plate or two to your table. It’s an efficient experience executed flawlessly.
The avant-garde menu offers a wide selection of Chinese and Mexican items served tapas style and priced moderately compared to other Vegas upscale establishments. The menu is apportioned into several sections: dim sum, noodles and soups, tacos and sections called “From China” and “From Mexico.” Some of the restaurant’s interpretations honor tradition while others are playful and fun–up to and including the names given them.
Scour the twelve-item tacos menu (one taco per order) and you’ll see a lot of familiar offerings (especially if you live in the great southwest). The tacos range from simplicity itself (refried beans with chipotle salsa and queso fresco) to the familiar (carnitas: braised baby pig, pork rinds, spicy salsa verde cruda) to the Mexican favorite (slow-cooked pork belly, pineapple) to the Mexican-Chinese fusion favorite Viva China (soft beef tendon, Kumamoto oyster, scallions, Sichuan peppercorn sauce). You’ll also find a Langosta taco (lobster, salsa Mexicana, arbol chile sauce). Let’s see Taco Bell come up with a line-up like this!
China Poblano’s answer to the Old El Paso commercial in which a young boy invents a flat bottom taco so the ingredients don’t spill out is a stainless steel taco holder in which each individual taco is nestled. The taco holder helps the warm, freshly made tortillas hold in ingredients such as the Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork and marinated onions in the Cochinita Taco. What it can’t hope to contain are the fabulous flavors of the sweet, tender and juicy meat punctuated by onions pickled pink Each taco goes about four bites, but you’ll enjoy every one of them.
Founder Jose Andres has long been regarded as one of the pioneers and foremost practitioners of molecular gastronomy, a term he despises, preferring to say chefs are closing the gap and bridging the differences between science and cooking. Perhaps culinary gastronomy would be a better term to describe what some of his creations do in maximizing the creativity in the use of ingredients. The scallop ceviche would fit that description. You’ll do a double-take when it’s delivered to your table.
Perched above a layer of river stones are four bay scallops sitting atop four key limes dipped in an ancho chile sugar (but don’t call it molecular gastronomy). This is most certainly a play on oyster shooters, meant to be eaten by picking up the key lime and shooting it in your mouth while squeezing the lime behind it. The tart tanginess of the lemon and the sweetness of the sugar combine with the savory-sweetness of the scallop to give your mouth a burst of contrasting yet surprisingly complementary flavors. This is a must have!
On the surface, Laura Esquivel’s wonderful 1990 tome Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate) is about the struggles of a couple passionately in love but cruelly fated to be kept apart. Below the surface, however, is a brilliant novel that celebrates the passion food can–and does–inspire. China Poblano pays tribute to the novel and to its sentiment with a dish aptly named Like Water for Chocolate. This dish’s most elegant feature is perfectly braised quail which borders a beauteous array of dragon fruit sauce, chestnuts and rose petals. The quail’s skin is wonderfully crispy, its meat delicate and juicy. The dragon fruit sauce, which is almost mousse-like, lends a bit of sweetness which pairs very well with the quail. The rose petals are also surprisingly good.
To Jose Andres, even the sacrosanct traditions of his home nation are subject to reinterpretation. Gazpacho, for example, is almost always a cold, tomato-based raw vegetable soup. Inventive chefs sometimes incorporate watermelon for a sweet contrast. China Poblano’s reconstruction, called Gaspacho Morelia, includes pineapple, watermelon, jicama, dragon fruit, queso fresco and chile pequin. Not a tomato in sight! When it’s delivered to your table, your server will use an orange juicer to squeeze an entire orange on top of the gaspacho. The three savory ingredients–queso fresco, chile pequin and celery–provide a wonderful contrast to the citrusy melange.
China Poblano’s lamb pot stickers stuck on you are a fusion treat that arrives at your table looking unlike any pot stickers you’ve ever seen. A crispy, lattice-like cover drapes over six pot stickers. It’s as much fun to extricate them from their crispy lace dome home as it is to eat the pan-fried dough from which it’s made. More fun–with an appropriate exercise of caution–will be popping the dumplings into your mouth. They literally burst with the hot liquid flavor of the meaty, cumin-laced juices in which the tender Colorado lamb shoulder is braised. The lamb is oh, so delicious.
Desserts are as imaginative, maybe even moreso, than the savory dishes. That may be especially true of the Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors, a whimsical take on the warriors unearthed in the Chinese city of Xian. Only a handful of items on the menu are more steeply priced, but splurging will ensure, at the very least, ogling admirers on all sides. A chocolate statue crafted from an outer shell of Oaxacan chocolate is stuffed with a chocolate-peanut butter mousse. The statue is surrounded by a melange that includes caramelized bananas, ginger ice cream and dark chocolate cookie crumbs. It’s as pretty as a picture so it’s a pity the only way you can eat it all is by cracking open the chocolate shell and melding all ingredients in each spoonful.
Dinner at China Poblano could easily set you back a C-note and it might not even fill you up, but you will most certainly enjoy every adventurous bite and look forward to a return visit. One of the great thrills of your visit is watching food being delivered to adjacent tables. It’ll give you an idea what you might want to order the next time you visit. Because of the popularity of this phenomenal new restaurant, you’ll want to make reservations.
In 2011, China Poblano was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant award. Jose Andres didn’t go home empty-handed, however, as he took home the coveted Outstanding Chef award and an episode of 60 Minutes in which he was profiled won a James Beard Award for best television segment. Leave it to a Spaniard to start a delicious Mexican-Chinese revolution.
3708 Las Vegas Blvd, South
Las Vegas, Nevada
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET:Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors, Lamb Pot Stickers, Gaspacho Morelia, Like Water for Chocolate, Cochinita Taco, Scallop Ceviche