This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide as No. 8 on Tom’s Top 10.
No. 8 ChiKo
The most unlikely three-star restaurant in Washington asks you to order at the counter, take a number and wait for your food in a black-and-yellow space with a couple rows of tables and the soundtrack of neighbors dropping by for takeout. The food that follows — like the local chefs behind the idea, Scott Drewno and Danny Lee — redefines what it means to be a fast-casual restaurant. If you can find better “orange-ish” chicken or cumin lamb stir-fry inside the District, your next dinner is on me; part of what sets apart the slip of a space on Capitol Hill from wannabe peers is the sourcing behind the flavors. (The brisket topping the rice enriched with furikake butter comes from Wagshal’s.) Not to mention the pedigree of Drewno, formerly the executive chef of the Chinese-inspired Source, and Lee, the talent at the Korean-accented Mandu. If you think Pineapple and Pearls is a tough ticket, try to secure one of the four stools at the reservation-only kitchen counter, where the culinary equivalent of Penn & Teller oversee a bargain tasting that pretty much includes the entire standing menu, plus a few flourishes, for $50. Grateful participants start with a tiered assortment of banchan and seafood snacks (dig the shrimp in XO sauce) before moving on to glorified versions of Chinese and Korean signatures arranged on baking sheets. (Only the food is fancy here.) Almost as cool as the juicy rib-eye and slippery rice cakes, and the fried rice with smoky catfish, is the fact you can wash both back with cocktails.
ChiKo: 423 Eighth St. SE. 202-558-9934. chikodc.com.
Prices: Mains $14-$18.
Sound check: 78 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10:
The following was originally published Aug. 11, 2017.
Fast-casual fusion ChiKo off to a fast start on Barracks Row
The latest definition of crack in Washington is the “orange-ish” chicken at ChiKo on Capitol Hill. Brighter and lighter than any orange chicken of my acquaintance, the dish, starring crunchy thigh meat, gets electrified with candied Fresno chiles and candied clementines.
The newcomer’s fried rice is plenty awesome, too, scattered as the squid-inked grains are with bites of smoky blue catfish, crispy shallots and glossy fried Thai basil. Then again, I’m still dreaming of the cumin lamb, a stir-fry made sensational with shredded lamb neck and wheat noodles that absorb the flavor of the meat, which is marinated in garlic, ginger and soy sauce.
All I can think as I eat in the 30-seat draw, listening to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and rubbing elbows with enough food notables to suggest awards night at the Rammys, is this: What took Scott (the Source) Drewno, Danny (Mandu) Lee and Drew (Matchbox Food Group) Kim so long to get this party started?
The business partners, billed as the Fried Rice Collective, are proof that three heads are better than one. With their backgrounds in Chinese and Korean cooking, chefs Drewno and Lee help sell the menu, while Kim concentrates on branding and hospitality. A new breed of restaurant, ChiKo is fast-casual in the sense that customers order at a counter, take a number and wait to have their meal delivered on small baking trays. The quality of ingredients, care with which they’re handled and seasonal focus elevate the eating and justify the establishment’s prices.
Little touches, including an outline of the city in neon on a front wall, add up to a lot to like. DIY cocktails are made using miniature “airplane” bottles, and the children’s menu features tempura chicken and steamed rice so compelling, parents tend to poke their chopsticks in the bowl as well. (The secret: nori butter and toasted sesame seeds.) Delivery will be a reality in the near future. If I lived closer, I’d be calling out for ChiKo’s button-size pork and kimchi pot stickers and the pull-no-punches kimchi stew, swirled with pork belly and nicely chewy rice cakes.
Already happening: a tasting menu, composed in part from dishes on the regular script and staged at the kitchen counter. Be patient. While there are two nightly seatings, at 6 and 8:30 p.m., there are a mere four stools. Reservations for the $50 dinner (drinks, tax and tip are extra) sell out almost as soon as they’re made available. I’m still waiting for my turn. But food spies rave about the “tower of snacks” — pickles and salads — that launch the parade and the seasonal salutes, one night an Asian take on Mexican crazy corn.
Can we expect more ChiKos down the road? Before the entrepreneurs replicate their baby, Drewno says they want to “do one right.”
The way some fans see it, they’re already where they want to be.