Don’t know how to pronounce “pho”? Curious about “dong po”? Don’t know your “kalbi” from your “zha jiang”? Then maybe it’s time to take your palate on an Asian adventure at Chow in downtown San Luis Obispo.
The stylish new restaurant next to the Fremont Theater is the latest collaboration between Robin Covey of Novo in San Luis Obispo and Shanny Covey of Robin’s in Cambria.
Though patrons of those restaurants will recognize some of the same fun, bold flavors, the concept behind Chow is “California Asian Cuisine with a modern, urban feel.” (If the name Chow sounds familiar, it may be because of Chow Novo, the tiny restaurant that opened near the Palm Theatre only while the larger Novo building was being retrofitted.)
“Robin’s and Novo are both international, with some Indian and even Moroccan components,” explained Robin Covey. “Chow is only Asian, with the focus on Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean flavors, and we’re going to stay within that realm of Asia and Southeast Asia.”
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In terms of ambiance, the three restaurants are “really quite different,” noted Robin. “At Novo everybody wants to eat outdoors, while at Robin’s the mood is more homey — Chow has a beautiful indoor sense.”
The bright space takes advantage of its high ceilings and skylights, and the clean interior has an engaging, upscale mix of calm minimalism and rich Asian accents.
The Coveys work closely with chefs Justin Gabbert (also the chef at Novo) and Alan Hsu and pastry chef Russell Thomas to develop Chow’s menu, which is an intriguing combination of the familiar and the exotic.
The most recognizable items range from crab cakes to a Chinese meatball sandwich, sesame orange roast chicken to five-spice duck breast, and red curry beef to a grilled rib eye.
Of course, this being Chow, that rib eye is accompanied by a housemade kimchi, a zesty, pickled Korean cabbage perhaps akin to coleslaw.
Some patrons might be new to something like kimchi, but that’s part of the fun of Chow; the menu is set up with many small plates and accompaniments to encourage people to share dishes and sample new tastes. For example, try the delicate Kabocha squash and Shiitake mushroom wontons with spicy citrus dipping sauce, the melt-in-your-mouth Korean braised short ribs known as “kalbi” (available either as appetizer or entrée), the Chinese “Zha Jiang” with spicy ground pork atop udon noodles, the decadent “Dong Po” pork belly with housemade pickled vegetables, or a big, comforting bowl of the Vietnamese soup known as “pho” (pronounced “fuh”).
Chow is also attuned to nonmeat diets, a sensibility and skill set that Gabbert honed when working at Millennium, San Francisco’s famed vegetarian restaurant. Shanny noted that “vegan and gluten-free items are indicated on the menu — we serve a lot of rice noodles, which are gluten-free — and we’re in the process of adding a lot more vegetarian items to the menu.”
All of Chow’s chefs also relish continuing the Coveys’ longtime tradition of strongly supporting Central Coast farmers and food producers.
Though some cuisine-specific and hard-to-find items are sourced from out of the area, Robin noted that during the month of February, the list of local produce that will be used in the restaurant includes “kale, baby bok choy, leeks, Kabocha squash, mint, Asian greens, snap peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, oranges and apples.”
In addition, Shanny said, “Even before Robin’s, we had a health food store in Cambria, so we’ve been driving to and buying from the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market on Saturday morning for over 25 years — and we still see some of the same farmers!”