A portmanteau is a new word created from combining parts of two separate words, the way we get brunch from mashing together breakfast and lunch. We use some portmanteaus without realizing it, such as bodacious (bold plus audacious) and meld (melt plus weld). More obvious pairings may just be there to make us laugh, like jazzercise or sharknado.
101 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas
As of November, Encinitas has introduced new portmanteau to make us hungry: ChiKo.
The name reflects Chinese plus Korean, referring to the culinary traditions its founding chefs brought together when they launched ChiKo in Washington, D.C., in 2017. The concept of melding traditional flavors with modern cooking techniques made it an overnight success, quickly establishing the brand as a darling of foodie media and earning its owners a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant.
Count San Diego lucky, as one of the partners, Andrew Kim, lives out here, and so Encinitas becomes the first town to get a ChiKo outside of D.C.
I don’t expect things to go any differently here. Taking over the former site of Bull Taco, a couple blocks north of downtown proper, the fast casual eatery doesn’t have a large or enviable location. Its chefs hustle over sauce- and sauté-pans in a compact open kitchen, squeezed behind a narrow countertop banked on either side by a narrow strip of dining room. But the honestly prepared, Korean- and Chinese-inspired dishes they churn out are nothing short of craveable.
Take the first item I ordered off the Starters menu: wok-charred Chinese broccoli with crispy garlic, thinly sliced oyster mushrooms, and toasted sesame oil. A food writer probably shouldn’t rave about a stir fry of stalky greens and little else, but that’s what I’m here to do. The stalks remained refreshingly al dente, the leaves absorbed the garlic and sesame goodness. The $8 portion was meant to be shared, but I wanted all of it.
Then I tried the smoked brisket dish. Reminiscent of a Korean bibimbap, the soy glazed chopped brisket entree ($18) is served in a bowl with rice, pickled jalapeños, shredded seaweed, a six minute egg, and “furikake butter,” seasoned with the Japanese spice blend. Cubes of an almost translucent brisket peppered with sesame seeds anchor the dish, firm yet with just enough fat to marry with the custardy egg yolk and umami butter. It was good enough to distract me from the Chinese broccoli.
Along with a candied mandarin “orangish chicken” and six-hour, cumin braised lamb noodle, this dish originated in the Capitol Hill restaurant. The smoked brisket in question actually gets shipped out here from Wagshal’s, a D.C. area deli. If you’re looking for a comparable local beef dish, try the tri-tip skewers, made using the regionally famous burgundy and pepper marinated “Cardiff Crack” from Seaside Market.
Whatever you do, order to share, and eat as much as you can. In addition to starters and entrees, Banchan-like side dishes go for $3 apiece, including turmeric pickled daikon, sichuan spiced cucumbers, and napa cabbage kimchi.
Better yet, watch for ChiKo to launch its interactive Kitchen Counter tasting menu in the new year: for $50 per person, reserve a spot at the counter and let the chef guide you through a taste of just about everything at this fantastic, overachieving new restaurant.