I love to think of that moment when French-trained chefs go rogue. I picture it all going down like a scene out of Ratatouille. Slamming pans against the stove, they scream and fling spare onions at their sous chefs, and in a fit of rage—or brilliance—they discover that the secret ingredient to their star dish is not the $200-an-ounce white truffle they've been fingering, but lo, the peasant-friendly turnip.
Or a French chef goes rogue like CIA-trained Vuong Loc—skipping over the tried-and-true and opening a high-end pizza/Asian fusion restaurant instead. Because isn't it time foie gras pizza and chicken pho dumplings coexist on the same menu?
"I've always wanted a pizza place," Loc told me. "It just sounded like a fun project where I could bring the family regularly to eat." Fun is the operative word for the fifth venture from Vuong and wife Tricia Loc, who opened the seasonal, classic French restaurant Pomerol next door, and were behind the now-shuttered Portage, June, and Pig N Whistle. If Pomerol looks like where you'd go for an intimate date over a bottle of wine and steak frites, all dimmed lighting and cozy tables, Chinapie resembles the next stage-of-life situation where you can take the kids. The bright, airy space with white metal chairs, simple lightweight wooden tables, and an open kitchen is as child-friendly as a pizza parlor, from the high chairs in the corner to the homemade push-pops for dessert.
Loc spends a long time thinking about the rotating selection of pizzas on his menu, looking for a "balanced bite" with new ingredients but "familiar flavor and texture." His Asian-fusion pizzas—fish sauce with pork and pesto! Salami, chili oil, and honey!—sound unorthodox, until you remember that the most groundbreaking Asian and Italian fusion happened thousands of years ago. What up, pasta. If the Chinese invention of noodles gradually made its way over to Italy, why can't the love be returned with a little hoisin sauce in your wood-fired pizza, a little Szechuan chili oil mingling with grated Grana Padano cheese over your baked Olympia oyster?
Some of these inventions are more successful than others, naturally. Other reviewers have raved about the Uncle Sau pizza, with its cilantro-and-hazelnut-pesto base, liberal dabs of fresh mozzarella, and chunks of sweet fish-sauce-glazed pork. But on my visit, the spare helpings of pork were cooked until over-dry, and the fish sauce/jalapeño/pesto combo was, shockingly, a little bland. Uncle Sau was having a bad night of it, but the Indian-inspired Neli was in top form. The curry spices in the chicken tikka masala sausage and tomato cream curry played nicely against the tang of goat cheese and pickled onions. It was like pizza meets your favorite Indian takeout.
The problem with Chinapie—and it's a good one to have—is that there are so many types of pizzas you'll want to try on your first visit, but not enough stomach to accommodate them all. Best to go with a large group. My curiosity was piqued by the Pomerol, named after Loc's popular French restaurant, because what kind of wacky goose puts foie gras, quail eggs, Morbier cheese, and hoisin sauce on a pizza? And the Chowder—a potato, bacon, and clam pizza with a béchamel base—sounded like a warm soup hug, the bread bowl conveniently already attached. But I settled on Mark's Barn, a vegetarian pizza where the squash takes center stage, its sweet, homey delicata spruced up by a liberal sprinkling of fresh, bitter arugula on top.
Your eyes might jump down to the pizzas first, but don't skip over the appetizers, which provide equally tempting reasons to return to Chinapie. The Pok Pok wing explosion has prompted every sports bar and restaurant to offer similar fish-sauce-glaze variations on their menus these days, but the confit chicken wings at Chinapie are proof positive that not all are created equal. Theirs deserve a spot right next to Hue Ky Mi Gia's fried butter wings of glory. Serious work goes into these: Loc cures and confits the wings, and then crisps them up in the fryer before tossing them with basil, tomato, fresh Thai chili, and garlic sautéed in olive oil. They're finished with his caramel sauce, a blend of burnt sugar, black pepper, and fish sauce. This is a spicy, well-seasoned bit of bird, leading you to wish you had ordered one of the Old Stove Brewing drafts to wash it down with instead of a Jael Julep (a sweet, gingery take on the mint julep with gin instead of bourbon).
I wouldn't say the pho flavor in the chicken pho dumplings stands out significantly—it tastes similar to other great soup dumplings I've tried. I kept drinking the pho broth that spilled out into the spoon, asking myself dumb questions like: Is this pho-y enough for me? Can I feel the pho? The answer is, sadly, no, but the dumplings are delicious, with the oh-so-delicate sack of noodle barely containing the broth and savory ball of gingery ground meat.
With the exception of the $24 foie gras pizza, all pizzas—sized for two people to share or one person to have a really big meal—run a friendly $13 to $18. But some of the appetizer prices killed me a little. The pho soup dumplings are four for $9; I would have preferred six, even if they charged $11. I'm aware of the rising rents in Fremont and the gorgeous design of the restaurant, including the light-fixture-of-the-future they had going above our head that you could stab an intergalactic alien to death with. But you really do have to cry when the Olympic oyster and octopus baked with Szechuan chili oil comes to your table, a mere two oysters and two tentacles for $17. Yes, the house-made chili oil and the meatiness of the oyster were a delectably savory pairing of flavors. Sure, the tender octopus made a quick convert out of my friend, who has always avoided octopus because she'd found previous executions too tough. But watching that same friend split a silver-dollar-size oyster into two so she could share it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. Let heaven's generosity pour forth, Chinapie. Let there be three oysters. I'll even trade you a tentacle.
For dessert, the homemade push-pops are the big draw here; do not ask me why salted-caramel ice cream somehow tastes better when you push it through a plastic tube. It's one of life's great mysteries. It also felt like a final message Loc was sending out to his diners: Don't take it all so seriously. Food doesn't have to be an intensely contemplated, haute activity. "I want Chinapie to be a place where you can just eat and drink your favorite things without thinking about it," Loc said.
Eating through the menu, you get the sense that Vuong Loc is playing with his food like we all used to as kids. But his creations are infinitely tastier. Chinapie is his mashed-potato volcano.