Chinese-Korean cuisine is a distinct marker of childhood for most Koreans. Often consisting of jjajangmyun — black bean paste noodles — and sweet and sour pork, Chinese-Korean is a cheap source of culinary familiarity to Koreans, much like Mexican takeout is to Americans.
The Washington, D.C.-based restaurant CHIKO, on the other hand, paints a cuisine altogether separate from my childhood memories. The restaurant’s founding group, The Fried Rice Collective, has members with rich experience and history with their respective cuisines: Danny Lee worked in Mandu; Scott Drewno mastered his craft in Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main; and Drew Kim learned his art from Matchbox, Ted’s Bulletin and DC-3.
This union of chefs dedicated itself to the vision of culinary experimentation, with CHIKO — a portmanteau of Chinese and Korean — being the culmination of their efforts.
With Lee specializing in Korean cuisine, Drewno in Chinese and Kim in the administration, the FRC strived to create a restaurant that, while bold in its creations, nonetheless retained its individual cuisines’ integrity.
“We wanted to have a restaurant where half of the menu focused on Chinese cuisine, and the other half, Korean, and keep them separate instead of doing fusion,” Lee wrote to me. “We basically wanted to update the Asian corner store/takeout store model. With each dish on our menu, we experimented a lot on different ingredients, techniques, etc. to create our own versions of traditional Chinese and Korean dishes.”
The three began working on CHIKO as their platform for experimentation and, along with it, a sense of reinvention and creative autonomy.
“CHIKO worked out because we all wanted to do something different,” Lee said. “Drew wanted to open up a smaller restaurant, Scott wanted to move away from fine dining and I wanted to move away from ‘traditional’ Korean.”
In addition to their shared vision, two members of the FRC — Lee and Kim — also took CHIKO as an opportunity to revisit their Korean heritage.
“Drew’s father was Korean, [but he] assimilated very quickly to America, so Drew did not really grow up with much Korean influence at all,” Lee said. “It was after [Drew] had his kids that he wanted to learn more about his Korean heritage, so that his sons would be able to connect with [their grandfather] more. I also started to cook more Korean food at home so that I could understand the flavors that I grew up with. It’s great to see [Drew] trying to reconnect with his heritage, and he’s proud to have CHIKO almost as an homage to his father.”
As a close family friend of Chef Lee, I have visited CHIKO four times since its opening and acquired a few favorites along the way. This time, however, in the spirit of The Fried Rice Collective’s sense of adventure, I veered off from my usual and ordered the house fried rice and orange-ish chicken for my main dishes. My sides were chilled marinated littleneck clams, potato and egg salad, sichuan spicy cucumbers and kimchi.
Neatly plated on top of a metal tray, the dish was an aesthetic representation of a childhood Korean school lunch that underwent a glow-up. Nestled in shiny metal bowls and cutlery, the glistening food within was an opportunity for a photo op, or as my Korean grandmothers would say, a chance to “eat with your eyes.”
I began with the side dishes. The kimchi and sichuan spicy cucumber were unremarkable — they are perhaps best as palate cleansers or refreshing accompaniments to heavier dishes like the brisket or fried rice. While the potato and egg salad carried a welcome, spicy punch, it was the littleneck clams that really took the cake. Arranged delicately over ice, the chilled clams were a lovely blend of sweet, savory, fresh and chewy.
My first bite of the house fried rice can best be described as a hug from Anna Wintour — the smoky taste of the catfish and feathery texture of the rice evoked a sophisticated air that created an unfamiliar but nonetheless delicious makeover for the humble fried rice.
Finally, I tried the orange-ish chicken and was struck by its similarity to the sweet and sour pork I grew up ordering from my neighborhood Chinese-Korean restaurant. The candied mandarins, crispy garlic and chili, however, felt like a much-elevated cousin to my beloved sweet and sour pork.
Overall, CHIKO is an experimental yet approachable establishment to satisfy your weeknight Asian takeout cravings. Though the restaurant is admittedly quite small — expect to yell out your orders when they ask for it and get elbowed a few times — its buzzing energy and reliably good food make it a worthwhile place to visit next time you want to try something new.
Ye Bin Won is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. After Hours appears in print every other Friday.