There’s a lot to say about the Brickell restaurant Ch’i. But first, some context would be helpful.
When the marketing campaign for Ch’i debuted, the restaurant went by a different name: Los Chinos, which literally translates to “The Chinese.” The accompanying social media campaign (which has since been deleted) featured generic images of models dressed in cheongsam and other traditional Chinese outfits, along with pun-heavy captions that said things like “our Multi-Faceted [sic] Concept will ‘ex-panda’ your mind [panda emoji].”
And now seems like a good time to point out that the two hospitality teams behind the restaurant, Breakwater Hospitality Group and Grove Bay Hospitality Group, have zero Chinese or Chinese-American members on their executive management team.
Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías was among the first to publicly criticize the restaurant’s name in a tweet, writing, “Imagine if a couple of rich, light-skinned Hispanic guys from Miami opened a restaurant called Los Negros.” It wasn’t until about six months later, though, that ownership announced the restaurant would change its name to Ch’i.
“We wanted to be sensitive,” Grove Bay CEO Francesco Balli told the New Times about the change of heart. Ch’i was, according to its managing partners, meant to be an ode to the Chinese restaurants they so fondly remember from their youth.
And while the name change wasn’t an end-all solution to Ch’i’s significant cultural insensitivities, it was a start. Or, rather, it could have been a start, if the team didn’t then proceed to not-so-quietly open up a restaurant that not only serves bad food - but portrays Chinese culture as a caricature.
This is obvious even in the hallway leading up to Ch’i’s front door, where shelves are lined with nonsensical decorations like a box of “Potent Men’s Tea,” a jolly figurine of a man with a curly mustache and little black lines for eyes, and t-shirts printed with sayings like “wok ‘n’ roll” and “you win some you dim sum” (a phrase repeated on the huge neon sign that greets you at the entrance). It is a lazy, cheap aesthetic that’s about as informed and intentional as a ninth-grader filling out last night’s homework 30 seconds before the bell rings.
If you manage to make it to the faux-ancient front door of Ch’i without turning around, sprinting all the way to the Everglades, and flinging yourself into the jaws of the nearest alligator, you’ll find one of Brickell’s corniest dining rooms - a neon space that feels like a laser tag arena sponsored by Swarovski Crystals. There is a DJ booth in front of a large golden gong (because of course there’s a gong) and occasionally EDM versions of Chinese dragon and lion dances, traditions that date back thousands of years, though their main purpose here seems to be distracting people from the aggressively mediocre food.
If you’re thinking that Ch’i’s menu is perhaps where you’ll find an ode to the owners’ fond memories of childhood Chinese restaurants, it’s not. The dumplings taste like they’re from the frozen food aisle. The Chinese BBQ pork ribs are swimming in a barbecue sauce that also tastes like something you’d grab off a grocery store shelf. The crispy calamari salad is actually just a bowl of soggy, rubbery fried calamari with a sad little toupee of green papaya shavings on top. Perhaps the only thing on the menu we’d eat again are the ropa vieja spring rolls, although they’re still not good enough to justify the trip here.
The cocktail list is more remarkable, but only due to the fact that multiple adults looked at it and thought, “Perfect!” Options include the “Punchy Panda,” “K-Pop” (wrong country), and “Mi So Nori.” Get it? Like “me so horny” - the racist cliche that’s been used to demean Asian women for decades. Oddly enough, it’s the least offensively named cocktail - “Ojo Morado” - that tastes the most offensive, a mysteriously purple drink that tortures you with each bitter sip.
There is an alternative timeline where Ch’i could have made this work. A Latin-Chinese fusion restaurant makes a lot of sense in Miami. Chinese and other Asian immigrant populations in countries like Cuba, Peru, and Venezuela have had huge impacts on their country’s cooking. Examples exist in restaurants like Itamae, our favorite Nikkei (Peruvian/Japanese) spot in Miami, or Finka, a restaurant that merges Cuban classics with Korean and Peruvian influences. There’s also Chifa Du Kang (Peruvian/Chinese) in Westchester, Jamaica Kitchen (Jamaican/Chinese) in Sunset, and the list goes on.
But even if the food at Ch’i were as good as the aforementioned restaurants (which it is so incredibly not), it wouldn’t matter. Ch’i’s issues run deeper than the menu. They are baked into the very philosophy of a restaurant that hijacks a culture with the sole intention of turning a profit - and nothing else. To fix that? Well, they’re going to need a lot more than just a new name.
This dish barely fulfills the legal obligation of its menu description. Is there a tostada underneath the thin, flavorless strips of tuna? Technically, even though it’s hardly bigger than a matchbook. And what about that wakame salad the menu also promised you? Yes, it’s underneath the tuna in a portion about as noticeable as the list of side effects at the end of a drug commercial.
Will you finish all of these perfectly whatever siu mai? Probably. Will you want to order another batch immediately? Definitely not.
These are more dumplings firmly planted in the camp of “just OK” - although several dumplings in our order of five were arranged sloppily off their banana leaf, which meant they stuck to the steamer and spilled open the second we tried to lift them up.
A broken clock is right twice a day, as evidenced by the one thing we tried here that made us say “mmmm” in a good way. Ropa vieja combined with spring rolls is the kind of delightful and interesting fusion Ch’i should be doing.
A more accurate name for this would be rubbery, soggy fried calamari with a useless shaving of green papaya and enough microgreens to try and distract you from how bad everything tastes. But that probably wouldn’t fit on the menu.
These ribs really aren’t anything you wouldn’t find at the nearest barbecue chain restaurant, and the vaguely-named “Chinese BBQ sauce” on the menu tastes an awful lot like some random American brand you’d grab off a grocery store shelf.