Choong Man Chicken: 9528 Lee Hwy, Fairfax, VA 22031; (703) 772-0072; www.choongmanchicken.com.
On the way home last night, we noticed colorful banners flapping in the breeze in front of Choong Man Chicken and a neon OPEN sign. We’ve been expecting it for a couple months now, replacing the much-missed ABC Canteen (a great Mexican place with homemade tortillas that closed last November).
Earlier this week, we reviewed a pizza (and subs-and-wings-etc.) place that just opened at Virginia Square, Extreme Pizza. We are not trying to scout for new places, they just keep popping up in the areas we haunt.
Choong Man, which serves Korean fried and BBQ chicken, had a soft open last Friday (5/18/18) and opens “for real” this Friday (5/25).
We popped in to check it out and get the scoop, but didn’t place an order on our initial visit. We thought maybe we’d pick up an appetizer or something, because our fridge is stiff with (Chinese) take-out… But this place offers a narrow range of set fare, so we resolved instead to return for the lunch special.
For lunch today, we order the Curry Tikkudak Tenders. Is “tikkudak” a Koreanization of the Indian tikka? It would make sense: Dak (닭) means chicken, and this plate (as named) seems to be specific to Choong Man. If so, it would just mean marinated chicken tender cutlets — which is what this is.
The large bits of fried chicken are hot, juicy and tender, but retain their fried crispiness. They are not too oily, and come glazed in the curry sauce in which they’re seared. They hit the spot. Be sure to ask for sauces — all the sauces. There is a tangy hot sauce and a creamy honey mustard with salt-and-pepper seasoning (see image at top of post). There’s also a white sauce that they dress the coleslaw with, but we didn’t try that. Probably a wasabi-mayo thing, we’ll try it next time. Slaw would go nicely with this piping hot chicken, as do the cool pickled radish bites with rice vinegar and sugar, shown above right.
Speaking of the radish bites: One of our favorite things about Korean food is being presented with four or five little “side” dishes (banchan or 반찬) right away, often before the order is taken. Instant gratification. Choong Man does a quick-turnaround version of this: one side dish and then let’s get on with it. That’s fine; the emphasis here is on good and quick, not a drawn-out, sit-down dining experience. We like that they nod to the tradition, and wouldn’t mind see them rotate the banchan they serve from time to time — pickled radish to kimchi to jiggae or soup, say. Keep the variety in it that way, while keeping it one-dish-at-a-time.
They’ve remade the previous Mexican place smartly: (fake) brick and tile in red and brown, not too bright. ABC Canteen had a great salsa bar off to the side of the seating area and a large, open-air kitchen in back, where you could watch them make everything to order. The kitchen has been walled off, the service counter raised and replaced with a bar and stools. We count twenty-eight tops plus five seats at the bar and half a dozen chairs off to the side, for take-out orders. There are also a couple tables outside; those weren’t there before.
They’re still working out some of the beats, but that’s what a soft open is for. The kitchen staff is overworked, as is the lone waitress/cashier/greeter. They’ll need more than one person working the front, especially if this is what the lunch crowd looks like. They’re doing a bustling business, including a couple of homeless gentlemen representing the population that camps in the parking lot of Home Depot down the street. They wait fifteen minutes for their two Coronas, and then the lone waitress has to consult the kitchen staff regarding the location of the bottle opener. (Suggestion: Bottle opener + fridge magnet + length of twine = problem solved.)
Also slowing things down today is the point-of-sale (POS) system. They have one of the touchscreen variety that seems to require full-time attention. It takes the waitress/cashier/greeter about two dozen button presses and, voilà, your order goes to the kitchen. For some reason, this system must be consulted again when the order emerges from the kitchen — its table of origin having got lost along the way. This was the case for every single order — always a delay on the way to the table. Sometimes it required the waitress returning to the kitchen for consultation. Worse, the delay happens at the same POS that’s responsible for taking new orders and ringing up customers who are ready to pay and leave. It’s a chokepoint, and will always be a chokepoint unless they add another terminal, figure out some workarounds, or beef up training in the kitchen that we could not observe.
The staff seems friendly and excited about the new location. Thanks for the good chicken and welcome to the neighborhood.
♦ An overview of the franchise at HillRag
♦ The D.C. location on Yelp
♦ A dedicated site, with menu, for the Baltimore location. (Note: Menu offerings vary by location, so we posted images of the menu for the Lee Hwy joint above. Some Choong Man’s even offer seafood.)