What’s In A Name?

By Bill Gerdes

Posted March 1, 2012 in Eats
I started seeing the signs in the fall: “Yellow Chili Tapas Kitchen & Bar. Coming Soon.” I was intrigued. Was this a new Spanish tapas restaurant? But, why then the “yellow chili” reference? Was this a culinary mash-up? Perhaps a trio of Mexican, Peruvian and Spanish tapas? A mix of innovative small bites cuisine? In Riverside? It turned out I would have a while to wait as the opening of Yellow Chili stretched on into the winter. I waited and wondered as Christmas approached. Even the sign seemed mysterious—so yellow, so chain-like.

Yellow Chili is now open, has been for about a month. Questions, for the most part have been answered. Where to begin? Yellow Chili is a maddening restaurant, a unique experiment and, much like Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show and George Bush’s second term, a glorious mess. In an area noted for our bland chains or places you feel obligated to praise—Salted Pig, I love ya, but is there anything less fun to eat than your burgers?—Yellow Chili tends to bring up intense and visceral reactions in people.

My first reaction was: This is a tapas restaurant with no tapas on the menu. Oh sure, they’re labeled as such. Still, go in expecting to find an elegant bit of Catalan chorizo sitting atop a quail egg on a slice of baguette and you’re bound to be disappointed. No, Yellow has done something more original and possibly more interesting. Ever been in a restaurant and been so ravenous or buzzed that you just want to order off the appetizer menu? Had a drunken meal of nachos and chicken wings? That’s Yellow Chili—an entire restaurant dedicated to the art of the appetizer menu. And at times it’s awesome.

But like everything at Yellow Chili, it’s a mix. Their House Punched Fries are one of the hits. Despite looking like something you might find at a Glaswegian fish and chips joint at two-in-the-morning, they’re fresh and piping hot, seasoned nicely and go great with the restaurant’s mango-curry ketchup, which has just the right amount of heat and sweetness from the mango. Another hit is the Tempura Paneer Cheese, something straight off the dessert menu at an Indian restaurant, quite sweet with a honey pomegranate drizzle when combined with the candied walnuts; it’s almost a relief when that cheese is slightly bland. It works. Another nice dish is the calamari—the cherry tomatoes are fresh and delicious and the cilantro aioli and tomato sauce turns the plate into dippy-sauce nirvana.

Other dishes don’t reach those highs. The Hummus and Naan plate are okay, with the only problem being that the bread isn’t really naan, but more like a pocket-less pita. Yellow Chili has a labeling problem. The Naan Burger features an onion marmalade and hummus, which not only don’t mesh well but creates an overly sweet and sloppy sandwich, although the burger itself is juicy and quite tasty. The Tokyo Tea cocktail my wife ordered tasted like the drinks my friends and I made as teenagers when we raided the parent’s liquor cabinet.

Let’s be clear—Yellow Chili is worth a visit. Service here is fantastic, professional, pleasant, but they give you space to talk and eat too. They’ve got tons of televisions to watch sports, along with a bar area that’s occasionally buzzing with people. And the space itself is quirky and curious and yellow. As the night wore on we sat at our table on the patio, finished the Blue Moons that the restaurant had kindly replaced for our Toyko Teas and watched a car chase incongruously play itself out on KCAL 9. It all seemed to fit perfectly.

Yellow Chili Tapas Kitchen & Bar, 5225 Canyon Crest Dr., Ste. #42, Riverside, (951) 686-9400. Sun-Sat, opens 11AM.


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