Hot with a chance of snow.
That may sound like another forecast for extreme weather. In fact, it’s a sign of things to come at Choong Man Chicken, a 5-month-old Korean fried chicken joint in Duluth owned by husband-and-wife team Woosun Shin and Hyungrok Yoon and affiliated with a chain of Virginia stores of the same name.
As a Southern guy who can never pass up good fried bird, I’ve taken a shine to the Korean way with the dish: both the cooking method (often, it’s twice fried to a decidedly crispy finish) and the cultural experience.
As with Buffalo wings or Nashville hot chicken, it seems almost mandatory to chug beer with this so-called "other" KFC, which can be enjoyed plain or bathed in a variety of sauces, ranging from sticky sweet to fiery hot. The condiments can impart such sting, and cling, that plastic gloves are often offered for those wanting to protect sensitive fingers, expensive manicures or jewelry. (Funny how I'm never offered the gloves unless there's a lady in the party.)
What makes Choong Man different from most Korean fried chicken restaurants I’ve tried are two unusual preparations, both quite good, in their way.
Snow chicken is topped with thinly sliced raw onions smothered in a sweet, creamy, mayonnaise-based dressing. There’s also a curry and a “hot snow” version, but I recommend you go with the basic “snow onion.” And make it tenders, because who wants to deal with bony wings and curlicues of onion at the same time?
Tikkudak-style chicken is fried, then baked (allegedly on a charcoal grill) for an even cracklier crust, and it’s wonderful.
If you are new to Korean fried chicken, I suggest you start with a plain whole bird, which is enough to feed two to four people, particularly since it’s hacked into a heaping pile of bony pieces. You can move on to the heavily sauced versions later.
Other than french fries, curly fries and coleslaw, there’s not much in the way of sides at Choong Man, but I can endorse the addictive spiral-cut fries (kids will love ‘em) and the plainly dressed shredded cabbage. If you decide to go with hot chicken, it’s smart to have a bite of slaw to cool the palate.
Chicken gizzards, chopped into small pieces, batter-fried and served with red-hot pepper or soy glaze, are a tasty snack for popping while you wait for the main course — perhaps with a mug of Sapporo. The chewy gizzards are prepared “tikku” style, fried and baked like the tikkudak.
My server steered me away from the gochujang-spiked “red hot pepper” sauce — on anything — so I ended up with soy gizzards and curry tikkudak wings. I liked them both, though the gizzards were better and chewier (in a good way) after they came to room temperature, and I long for some of that amazingly crunchy textured tikkudak chicken with no sauce at all.
It’s hard to find a green vegetable or salad here.
One option is the bacon spinach chicken, a layered salad of plain chicken tenders piled with onions, spinach, bacon and chopped tomato. It’s like a salad from a fast chicken joint (say, Zaxby’s or Chick-fil-A). Not exactly healthy eating, but it goes down easy. Still, like so many of the offerings here, including the complimentary pickled white radish, it’s terribly sweet, thanks to the copious amount of sugary dressing that’s slathered all over, under and around the spinach.
Though not quite as treacly, the dressing on the snow onion tenders was also noticeably sweet. The “garlic spicy” dressing, which we had on a whole bird, is a good trade-off. Think of it as sweet heat, with enough garlic and chile to offer an assertive prick without blowing your hood off.
Choong Man Chicken is a welcome diversion from your standard-order Korean fried chicken places. As the staffer who cleared my table one night said when I told her I liked the unusual toppings and preparations, "It's not Taco Mac." Touche. (I still think Thank U Chicken is the best of the genre, and you have more choices in the way of sides at Thank U. You're welcome.) But for a casual, family-friendly spot that's a terrific value and well suited for takeout, Choong Man is a winner. Sure, the sauces can be almost candy-like, and it can take longer than it should for orders to arrive. But these folks know how to fry chicken right.
CHOONG MAN CHICKEN
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays. 2180 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 770-756-4455, facebook.com/Choongmanduluth/.
Recommended dishes: Fried chicken (whole bird). Snow onion chicken (we liked the tenders). Curry tikkudak (we liked the wings). Bacon spinach chicken salad. Curly fries. Coleslaw.
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