My first taste of the fried chicken came last month at Choong Man Draft House in Columbia Heights (3115 14th St. NW, 202-797-7227), in the space formerly known as the Heights Taproom. The menu describes tikkudak — whether wings, tenders or whole bird — as chicken that’s fried, then baked in a charcoal oven for “extra crisp and crunch.” It’s basically a smoky twist on Korean fried chicken, those crackly, hopelessly addictive wings that get not one, but two dunks in the deep fryer.
The first wings that crowded my Choong Man-branded plate radiated smoke in all directions. I could have paraded that plate down 14th Street and, within seconds, every barbecue hound within a block radius would have followed me to the gates of hell, the pied piper of smoke. As I laid waste to those wings — each one sticky and hot with sauce, if slightly soggy — I was imagining an all-out Korean fried chicken war in Washington. Who would win out? Choong Man or BonChon?
But several days later, I bounced into the very same Choong Man and was immediately confronted with a mystery: My order of tikkudak, this time coated in soy-garlic sauce, was almost smoke-free, even when I placed a drumette centimeters from my nostrils. Frustrated, I marched to the open kitchen and started interrogating the cooks, who initially suggested they were still using the charcoal oven to finish the fried chicken. But when I pressed, they confessed. They were spraying the birds with liquid smoke. They showed me the bottle.
This confession forced me to reflect on my first batch of tikkudak and an experience that I had initially dismissed as nothing more than the side effect of chicken that spends just a few minutes in the charcoal oven: Before I had finished the wings, they had lost almost all their smokiness. Armed with new information, I formulated a different theory: that the liquid smoke had simply evaporated. Whatever the cause, I wasn’t happy with the bait-and-switch of my Choong Man visits.
This might be a good place to provide some context. In South Korea, fried chicken has become a national obsession in the decades since KFC — that’s Kentucky Fried Chicken — entered the Korean market ahead of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Most of the fried chicken consumed on the peninsula is not done inside the American chain, but in eateries that specialize in chimaek, a two-fisted pairing of chicken and beer. The combination is buried in the word itself: Chimaek is a multicultural portmanteau of chicken and maekju, the Korean word for beer. According to a 2017 story in Bon Appétit, more than 30,000 joints served chimaek at the time in South Korea, each one trying to distinguish itself by some small variation in cooking method, sauce or seasoning.
Choong Man’s specialty is tikkudak as well as a dish the chain calls snow chicken, which is merely fried chicken covered in a sweet, mayo-based sauce and countless ringlets of sliced raw onion, which are briefly dipped in cold water to mask their more sulfurous odors. The snow chicken is good — more than good, really — especially if you pair it with a piquant curry sauce. But the tikkudak is my current obsession, perhaps not surprising given my own affection for barbecue.
But what, exactly, is tikkudak? For that definition, I turned to Danny and Jean Lee, the siblings who helped launch Mandu in 2006 near Dupont Circle. As we sat in the Choong Man Draft House, picking over two plates of chicken, Danny and Jean broke down the word: Tikku, they theorized, is the phonetic mash-up of two Korean words — twigim, which means “fried,” and gui, which means “grilled.” Dak, as those who have visited a certain Shirlington restaurant know, means “chicken” in Korean.
By definition, then, tikkudak should be fried and grilled or, in this case, briefly smoked in an oven designed by chain founder Choongman Park, who has more than 200 outlets in South Korea. But as I discovered in my visits to three Choong Man locations in the metro area, some kitchens have apparently abandoned the smoking procedure. In fact, at the H Street NE outlet of Choong Man (1125 H St. NE, 202-399-6010), an employee tried to convince me that the charcoal-grilling step is not part of the original recipe. I should note that Lucy Sesay, manager at the Choong Man Draft House, told me, “We’re going back to using our smoker.”
So why would some of these outlets seemingly be undermining the very chain that provides them with sauces, seasonings and recipes? A chain that’s still trying to establish an identity in the American market? One theory is money: You can burn through a lot of charcoal in a short amount of time, and that’s not cheap. But as I learned from an owner of a Choong Man location in Northern Virginia — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on behalf of the chain — the Washington outlets are not technically franchisees. They’re independent restaurants that merely buy ingredients from Choong Man. The chain has apparently not yet established a U.S. subsidiary, which means there is no official oversight for the at least six locations in the Washington-Balitmore region.
It is, in short, a free-for-all at Choong Man outlets here, which explains why there is so much variation among menus. The H Street location also sells stuffed fish, steamed crabs and raw oysters. The Draft House location serves up spicy ramen, bibimbap and even a burger.
If you want to experience Choong Man as the founder intended it, you need to hit the location in the Fairfax area. There may be others, but I know this spot at least strives to maintain the chain’s standards.) The Fairfax kitchen relies on Royal Oak hardwood lump charcoal to fuel its oven. Once your chicken emerges from the fryer, it’s slathered in your preferred sauce and then placed in the charcoal oven for about 2 ½ minutes. There’s no mistaking the flavor. The wings are smoky, but the flavor is more than the pure concentrated aroma of liquid smoke. Underneath the smokiness, there is, quite literally, the taste of fire.
Except when there’s not. The second time I ate at the Lee Highway spot, I barely detected smoke on the wings. I mentioned this later to general manager Hye Young Lee, who said she occasionally has to remind cooks to add more charcoal to the oven. She said she can usually spot an undersmoked plate of wings on its way to the table, but clearly she can’t be on-site every second of every service.
Corporate oversight, it seems, can’t come fast enough for Choong Man Chicken in America. Are you reading this, Choongman Park?
If you go
Choong Man Chicken
9528 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va., 703-772-0072, cmchicken.us.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Prices: $1 to $25 for all menu items.