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To eat the best thing on the menu at ChiKo, opening on Barracks Row Friday, use a chopstick to pierce a soft-boiled egg that’s stained brown from sweet soy sauce. Then watch as yolk dribbles out, coating everything in the bowl: Wagshal’s smoked brisket in a shiny soy glaze, a round of chilled butter flecked green with dried seaweed, steamed rice, and pickled Korean long chilies.
The calorically naughty dish costs about $20, and is at once comforting and playful. But best of all, it doesn’t fit squarely into any mold, much like the restaurant itself, which was founded by hospitality partners Danny Lee of Mandu, Scott Drewno (formerly of The Source by Wolfgang Puck), and Drew Kim (formerly of Matchbox Food Group). They call their group The Fried Rice Collective.
The name ChiKo suggests that the 28-seat restaurant serves Chinese and Korean food. “The dishes are based in Chinese techniques and flavors, and Korean techniques and flavors,” Lee says. “But does that mean those dishes exist in China or Korea? No.”
Nor is ChiKo’s cuisine the distinct genre of Korean Chinese fusion that’s becoming increasingly popular at eateries like Jang Won in northern Virginia. The Annandale restaurant is best known for its Jjajangmyun—noodles slippery with fermented black bean sauce.
“Some dishes we make might blur into that, but we’re not overly concerned about that,” Drewno says. “People are going to think it’s fusion. A long time ago that would probably bother me, but as long as you like it and think the food is good …”
The concept is as unorthodox as the food. Diners will find themselves in front of a rainbow display of preened and prepped cilantro, Thai basil, mint, dragon fruit, avocado, and more. And though they’ll line up to order at the counter, ChiKo’s fast-casual brand is not the build-a-bowl variety.
Instead, it serves a menu of dishes that arrive in steel bowls on sheet-pan trays. Appetizer-sized snacks cost around $10 while entrees rarely eclipse $20. After ordering, find a seat and someone will deliver your food. There will also be a selection of beers, wines, cocktails, and soju.
It’s clear from the circumference of the cartoonishly large wok that Lee and Drewno hope to get their flavors in front of a crush of people. “The market is moving this way—fine dining will have its day, but right now fast-casual is what people want,” Drewno says.
But they’re not compromising quality to feed the crowds. Drewno says they’ll still shop at farmers markets for produce and will source whole hogs from Loudoun County’s Spring House Farm.
And they’ll soon begin offering “Save The Bay Fridays,” featuring local oysters or invasive species such as snakehead fish. Similarly, they’ll serve up vegetarian specials for their weekly “Meatless Monday” theme night.
While ChiKo’s main dining area is first-come, first-served, there are four chairs positioned directly in front of the lively kitchen where diners can make reservations for up to four people for two nightly seatings (6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) and order a tasting menu in the $50 price range—but not the kind that calls for tweezers or edible flowers. “It’s basically, eat the menu,” Drewno says. Expect three sheet pans of food, which will include items from the regular menu, plus some surprises.
ChiKo was first conceived more than a year ago. “It started off with Drew [Kim] asking me out on a date for lunch,” Lee says. “We sit down and he says, ‘This is going to be a business lunch.’” Kim was itching to break away from Matchbox Food Group, where he had worked since 2003. As his company began growing into other cities, he says the concept became too cookie cutter. “One of the things that was really lacking was creativity. That’s my thing, and I just wasn’t able to do it anymore.”
The partners initially considered siting ChiKo in the rapidly developing Union Marketarea, but the deal fell through, so it was on to Barracks Row where Matchbox still held the lease for 423 8th St. SE—the former home of its concept DC-3 that closed last June. Kim has also lived in the neighborhood since 2007.
Kim and Lee eventually brought in Drewno, who has cooked Chinese food for 20 years—10 of them at The Source by Wolfgang Puck. “The great thing about these guys is there’s no ego involved, and I think that’s what happens to a lot of restaurant groups,” Kim says of his new partners. “Especially in a town that’s blowing up with restaurants, you have to check your ego at the door.”
What Lee and Drewno share in the kitchen at ChiKo is the freedom to “just cook.” Drewno says, “I wouldn’t want to do anything that would embarrass Wolfgang [Puck], but when it’s just us, we can do the dishes we want to do.”
One of them is a bowl of black and blue fried rice with hot and numbing smoked blue catfish from Ivy City Smokehouse, bonito flakes, and cured egg yolk. “It’s a little more down and dirty,” he says.
Another dish that wouldn’t fly in fine dining, Drewno says, is the wok-fired peel-and-eat shrimp with XO sauce, crispy garlic, fermented Chinese black bean, and chili-dusted lime. The sticky sweet shrimp that have been butterflied splay out on parchment paper on top of a tray.
While Drewno is shedding white tablecloth formality, Lee is gaining the freedom to stray from tradition. “For 11 years at Mandu, we’ve called dishes by their Korean names and tried to be very traditional,” he says. Where Mandu is time-honored, ChiKo is modern, and that takes the pressure off pleasing “people who think they know what traditional, authentic Korean food is.”
At Mandu, Lee has cooked side-by-side with his mother, Yesoon Lee. While “Mama Lee” isn’t an official partner at ChiKo, she’s supportive of her son’s next chapter. “She already jumped behind the line and I was like, ‘Get out!’” Lee says. “I don’t show her any menu items on purpose because she’s going to be like, ‘What the hell is this?’ But she’s really proud too.”
Kim, who is half Korean, thinks his father would also be proud. “My dad was the chef in the house—he taught my mom how to cook Korean,” he says. Growing up in West Virginia, Kim says there were no other Korean families, and to get Korean ingredients they would drive to a store in Athens, Ohio once a month.
“My dad would go hog-wild and load up,” Kim says. “I have vivid memories of him having a fridge in the garage just for kimchi because it smelled so bad.”
“This is bucket list for me,” he continues. “This is a tribute to my dad. It’s something I wanted to do when he was still with us, but I think he’d be super happy.”
ChiKo opens July 7 for dinner only. The hours are Monday-Thursday from 5-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight; and Sunday from 5-10 p.m. They’ll eventually add take-out, possibly delivery, and definitely brunch.
ChiKo, 423 8th St. SE; (202) 558-9934; chikodc.com