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Review

Melissa Zink

Chao Pescao

$$$$
Written by
Melissa Zink

Chao Pescao draws you in: first with the punchy teal and canary yellow signage outside, and then with a soundtrack that’s equal parts laughter and salsa throwbacks like “Yo No Sé Mañana” blasting through the huge space with high ceilings. When your server returns after you’ve ordered drinks to say, “Your cocktails are coming - almost time to get the party started,” you’ll fully believe them.

This Cuban/Colombian restaurant in Civic Center is big, bright, and always bumping. And at some point during your meal, as you see groups of friends going in on wooden boards of fried tostones and empanadas, and clinking mojitos before a basket of pan de bono hits the table, you’ll realize your server was onto something - you really are at a party, and one you won’t want to leave.

Like any great party host looking to create the right vibe, Chao Pesao has all the details covered: good atmosphere and decorations, including one pink wall made entirely of mounted musical instruments. The service is friendly but not fussy. Even as the dining room gets packed, you’ll still feel like you’re the only table in the house. Or better yet, like a regular who’s been coming in for years to share plates of lechon cubano and bowls of ajiaco.

Melissa Zink

But the best parties are ones where there are no rules and that’s how you should approach Chao Pescao’s huge menu. Go family-style and share some bocadillos, like hearty chicharrones, refreshing caesar salads piled high with grilled shrimp, and rice and bean plates you’ll be thinking about halfway through your third sync-up meeting the next day. Or you could drop in at lunch, and have some Tajín-fried chicken all to yourself. There’s no wrong way to order because everything is incredible - and comes in big enough portions to feed you and everyone you’re with, twice.

In an area dominated by monochromatic grey city buildings, concert halls, and museums, Chao Pescao is a (literal) colorful spot. It’s somewhere you’ll have a great time, every time, and will encourage you to start thinking of the theme for your at-home leftovers party before you even leave.

Food Rundown

Pan de Bono

This traditional Colombian bread is made from tapioca, queso fresco, and eggs, and is never a bad way to start a meal. You’ll get five smooth, ping pong ball-sized pieces in an order and each one will be warm and toasty, like a tiny finger heater. Resist the urge to eat them all up by yourself, though. You must save room for all the great stuff that comes after.

Melissa Zink
Tostones

Perfectly fried green plantains that are the perfect thickness and have the perfect levels of lime salt. Not to sound like a loyal parrot, but this sharable small plate is perfect. The avocado-pistachio salsa also complements the tostones nicely.

Colombian-Style Chicharron

Crispy, light, fatty, rich, oily (but not in an “our veins are now flowing with Crisco” sort of way) - these chicharrones are the Keanu Reeves of fried chunks of pork belly, aka ideal. But some friendly advice: only order if you intend on sharing or want leftovers - one chicharron per person is more than enough.

Melissa Zink
Lechon Cubano

Like all the specials, this is also one that will probably make you shout “F**k, yes, rice and beans!” They’re a timeless duo, like carabiners and tiny bottles of personalized sunscreen, and one that gets treated to some slow-cooked pork shoulder. The meat here is dressed up with bits of chicharrones, which we like.

Melissa Zink
Empanadas

If the empanadas aren’t on your table, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The crispy cornmeal masa is the star. We especially like the empanadas with beef and potato (pictured) and the vegetarian ones with kale, sweet potatoes, tomato, and garbanzo beans. Each order (three) are presented alongside a trio of red salsas on a wooden board. If you want to mix and match the empanadas, you’ll have to order a la carte, which, unfortunately, makes everything slightly more expensive.

Melissa Zink
Tajín Fried Chicken

Another Chao Pescao special and one that might inspire a praise-y expletive or two - but you’re in a place with a loud echo, so have at it. The Tajín breading is the key to this Mexican-style fried chicken. And despite the huge size of each piece, the meat is moist and not overdone.

César Ala Parilla Con Camarón

Did you order all the fried things (you should) and realize, “I could really go for some vegetables?” Look at any of their well-portioned salads or just turn to the one with garlic shrimp. This medley includes grilled romaine lettuce, pickled red onion, cotija, croutons, and cumin caesar dressing. And while we’re usually not a fan of restaurants that make us work for our intake of greens, we’ll happily put the knife to good use for this one.

Melissa Zink
Ajiaco

If it’s another foggy evening in town, get the ajiaco. Shredded chicken, leeks, corn on the cob, potatoes, and super light broth are the main components of this comforting soup. It’s finished off with crunchy capers, slices of avocado, and crema. You need this.

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