The El Chino Grande breakfast burger is massive and chef Chris Yang knows it. Take one look at this behemoth — stacked high with a fried egg, a crisp puck of potato, bacon, and a flurry of cabbage slaw atop a teriyaki-glazed beef patty, all crammed between two buns — and you might think there’s no way one person could finish it in a sitting, though diners do. “It’s kind of my pride and joy,” Yang says. “I feel it’s the ultimate burger.”
That’s why it’s one of the signature items on the menu of his pop-up, El Chino Grande, which makes a weekly appearance in the parking lot of Hunter’s Point Brewery on Sundays. Yang says the inspiration was two-fold. He insisted on putting a burger on the menu because “there’s always a burger stand [at Taiwanese night markets] and it’s always an amazing burger.” But the idea to put a crunchy fried hash brown came from the all-American ritual of enjoying McDonald’s breakfast. “I’d get a hash brown and people would always eat it on the side but I’d always just stick it into the middle of my burger,” he says.
That sums up the idea behind El Chino Grande. The pop-up is Yang’s opportunity to “dive more into [his] own heritage,” he says. Though Yang was born in Berkeley, his parents were born in China and grew up in Taiwan. He’s traveled there a handful of times, spent time living and cooking in Hawaii and northern California, and, now, finds himself without a brick and mortar restaurant to call home. So he started El Chino Grande to cook the kind of food he likes to eat, joining a number of Bay Area chefs whose work is rooted in their family histories and translated through the lens of their lived experiences. “It’s children of immigrants who want to recreate their family’s food,” Yang says. “That’s kind of how I feel about it.”
Before launching El Chino Grande with his wife Marcelle, who helms the front of the house, he was chef de cuisine at the now-closed Dogpatch Hawaiian restaurant Aina, where Yang gave diners multi-course tasting menus intended to tell “mo’olelo Hawaii,” or the story of the islands, by using ingredients ranging from taro to Spam. After he left, however, Yang says he wanted to be his own boss. A pop-up made sense and the name came easily — it’s a nickname he received while working at a restaurant where he thought everyone knew his name, only to find out his coworkers had been calling him “El Chino Grande.” Yang decided to accept the name in good humor, and later reclaimed it.
The concept is relatively straightforward: “For us, it really embodies what we would do if we were opening a night market stand in Taiwan,” he says. Aside from the burger, the other staple item is the Taiwanese taco, which used to be listed on the menu as jianbing, the classic street food breakfast that inspired the dish. “It’s kind of like, the perfect breakfast to go,” Yang says of the savory mung bean or scallion egg-based pancakes. “It’s warm, it’s hot, it’s easy and it takes a couple seconds. People will literally order it on their scooter and take it on their scooter and not even get off. That, to me, was a really strong memory. I wanted to recreate that experience that I had when I first had it.”
The El Chino Grande version of jianbing also riffs on Japanese okonomiyaki with sweet-salty shoyu tare and a delicate shredded pork “floss” giving the dish an umami bump that’s balanced with kewpie, avocado, pickles, and glossy ribbons of nori. He would have liked to name it on the menu as “jianbing” but says people just didn’t order it; so he changed the name to something more familiar. “It’s kind of a hard thing to do, right?” Yang says. “I don’t want to dumb down my food but I realized it’s not really about the name of it. I just want people to experience it.”
Unsurprisingly, El Chino Grande isn’t the end-all for Yang. He and Marcelle are hunting for a space where they can put down roots and open their own restaurant, though it won’t necessarily be a home for his Taiwanese taco. During the pandemic, Yang was popping up and selling meal kits under the name Hén-zhì, a more buttoned-up counterpart to El Chino’s casual vibe. When it lands in a brick-and-mortar venue, Hén-zhì will offer tasting menus also inspired by Taiwanese food. But fans shouldn’t get too excited just yet; Yang is committed to waiting for just the right place. “I’m a big feelings person,” he says. “I want to go into a space and be confident we’re going to go into it and crush it. I don’t want to settle for anything.”
For upcoming El Chino Grande pop-up dates and times follow @El_Chino_Grande on Instagram.