When Chino Latino opened in 2000, it was a cutting-edge powerhouse that smashed the idea of what a Minnesota restaurant could be. The look was hyper-sleek, the food came from the so-called "hot zones" and the attitude was in-your-face. A decade later, owner Phil Roberts says the Uptown behemoth is still a $6.5-million-a-year restaurant, but it's time to mix things up.

Chino's new vision: bargoers on a digital scavenger hunt in the bathroom, and the restaurant's new chef, Tuan Nguyen, wearing a loincloth while riding a talking chicken.

Chino Latino, of course, is no stranger to stirring the pot. From the beginning, the restaurant was a controversy magnet for its racy -- some say racist -- ad campaigns. One billboard read: "Happy Hour: Cheaper Than A Bangkok Brothel." Years (and many angry phone calls) later, Chino's advertising has toned down a bit.

The Uptown hot spot is getting edgy again, but this time on the techy side of things. This week it introduced an interactive ad campaign using QR codes, those black-and-white squares that look like digitized Rorschach tests. Once the code is scanned -- using a free app on any smart phone -- the user is instantly taken to a website (QR stands for "quick response").

Chino is putting these codes on billboards and inside the restaurant on bathroom stalls and cocktail flags.

So what happens when you scan one? Chino is using the gimmick to introduce chef Nguyen. Scanning the billboard code, for example, will take you to an interactive video adventure starring a cartoon version of Nguyen. Other codes, like the ones given out as tattoos or attached to cocktail glasses, might give you access to food and drink specials.

If all this talk of codes and apps is hurting your brain, you're not alone. Even the top brass at Chino Latino's parent company, Parasole (the brand behind Manny's, Salut, Uptown Cafeteria, Burger Jones and a half-dozen more), are a little bewildered by the campaign. CEO Roberts told me he's left much of it to Parasole marketing whiz Kip Clayton and ad guy Tim Alevizos of Intercom. Still, Roberts' fingerprints are all over this.

"What we really need to do is keep it rather outrageous," he told his team. "I really want people to be offended."

So far, the cartoon adventures they've concocted for chef Nguyen are pretty tame by Chino standards. Still, the video does show the scantily clad chef traversing the hot zones and wigging out on psychedelic habañeros.

If you code it, will they come?

QR codes are nothing new. They're widely used in Japan, where the smart-phone revolution took hold much earlier. But the ubiquity of QR codes is catching up in the United States. In June, the Pink Hobo art gallery in northeast Minneapolis dedicated an exhibition to digital art that could only be viewed on your mobile device. The gallery didn't actually contain any art, just framed QR codes for people to scan.

So what's the big deal? Chino Latino is one of the first Twin Cities restaurants to utilize this technology with a fun, interactive approach. Look for more restaurants and bars to use QR codes in a variety of ways. They might appear on menus next to certain dishes -- scan the code with your phone and it'll show you a video of the chef talking about the dish. Some restaurants already have begun digitizing their menus. Thanks to a Minneapolis company called VinoTech Solutions, Saffron and Vincent are among a few places that have put their wine lists on iPads that are handed out for patrons to peruse.

As for QR codes, Chino's brain trust recognizes the limited audience for this sort of campaign. Clayton said he estimates that 70 percent of Chino Latino's clientele has smart phones and only 20 percent of them have a QR code reader. Luckily, there are several free apps available (they suggest NeoReader), and Chino's staff has been instructed to guide customers along the way. "I suppose at the end of the day this whole thing could flop," Roberts said.

Ride the chicken, get the goat

Nguyen, 40, comes to Chino after working in Las Vegas as executive chef at Wolfgang Puck Café and stints here as the top chef at California Café and Napa Valley Grille. When Parasole first told Nguyen about the QR campaign, he didn't know what to think. "I said, 'What the hell are you talking about?'" Nguyen remembers. He'd never heard of a QR code. Then he watched the first video -- in which he's half naked, eating hot peppers and riding the chicken. "I couldn't stop laughing," he said.

Ten years after opening the restaurant, Roberts said he wants to re-establish Chino Latino as the place where "Mommy in Minnetonka doesn't want Muffy going." But will bargoers take the time to scan a QR code during bathroom breaks? Will they care? Roberts isn't entirely sure, but that won't stop him from dreaming up more naughty ideas.

"I'm just thinking about what we might be able to do with a goat," he said.

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909 Follow Tom on Twitter: @tomhorgen