The Gardena branch of CM Chicken – a crispy, deep-fried chicken chain with about 50 branches across America, and many more in South Korea – sits in a Gardena mall that’s a wonder of ethnic diversity. There’s a Cajun crayfish house, an Asian tea lounge, a taco and ceviche restaurant, a Japanese noodle place, a Hawaiian fast foodery, a juice shop and more.
And, on the southern edge, is CM Chicken, which stands apart from dozens of Korean chicken destinations in SoCal. This isn’t only a place to grab some bird crunchier than anything the Colonel ever imagined … it’s also a sports bar.
Not only that, but the big screens are everywhere you turn, playing whatever competitive physical activity is available on the tube at that moment. Recently, I dropped by and found football on one screen, basketball on another, along with a pickleball tournament and a country club golf challenge. It was quite an assortment. And, best of all, the Korean chicken went well with all of them! That was especially true with the ultra-crunchy variation called “tikkudak” – which translates as “fried and grilled.” It’s chicken so crunchy, it could shatter dental implants. Well, almost.
The chain’s roots date back to Seoul in 2009, when chef-businessman Choongman Park came up with the concept of tikkudak, and turned it into a phenomenon within a phenomenon.
The Korean love of fried chicken goes back much longer – to the 15th century, when food stalls in markets would deep-fry chicken parts, and serve them in a sauce made of vinegar and soy sauce. That was a culinary ancestor of the numerous sauces offered today, the most notable difference being that our modern sauces lean strongly toward sweetness.
Today, there are more than 36,000 fried chicken restaurants in South Korea – so many that Smithsonian Magazine dubbed it a “ubiquitous staple.” And sometimes, I suspect, there are that many here in SoCal. Though only CM offers tikkudak. And only CM is a sports bar at the same time.
There’s a choice of two Korean beers (Terra and Cass) and five non-Korean brews (Coors Light, Corona Extra, Hoegaarden, New Castle and Modelo Especial). There are numerous sojus as well, including four flavored ones (strawberry, grape, grapefruit and plum). I’ll stick with the beer.
The chicken options can be a bit overwhelming. The “Original Menu” offers fried chicken, garlic soy chicken, garlic spicy chicken, red hot pepper chicken and curry chicken – half, whole tender or wing in each case. The “Snow Menu” – which refers to a topping of marinated onions – comes fried, green hot, red and curry. There’s a “Specialisties [sic] Menu” of soy garlic spring onion, lemon spring onion, and curry spring onion. And there’s the “Tikkudak Menu” – garlic soy, red hot and curry. Frankly, they’re all good. Though if it says “red hot,” it means red hot. Be warned.
There’s also a “Side Menu” of tikku soy sauce gizzard and tikku red hot pepper gizzard, french fries and waffle fries, fried calamari and shrimp tempura and more. There’s the rarely seen ddukbokki, which is a stir-fried rice cake. It’s sometimes referred to as “a dish fit for kings.” Darned if I know why.
Oh, and there’s a very small section of dinner dishes – a beef-and-mushroom noodle stew, fishcake soup, spicy seafood soup and … snail salad with spicy dressing. There’s New York cheesecake for dessert. Soon, the Dodgers will be on the big screens.
CM Chicken is, like the mall in which it sits, an unexpected mix of culinary spins, twists and turns. As an added flip, it’s open till midnight every night except Friday and Saturday – when crispy, crunchy chicken is served till 2 in the morning.
Eating red hot tikkudak at 2 a.m. is best done if you’re blessed with an iron constitution – and a willingness to have dreams that would scare Freud. You’ll wake up in the morning far from hungry, though the leftovers do taste pretty good the next day.
CM CHICKEN CA GARDENA
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 15420 S. Western Ave., Gardena
Information: 310-817-5853, www.cmchickengardenaca.com
Cuisine: Korean Chicken/Sports Bar
When: Lunch and dinner, every day
Details: Beer, soju and soft drinks; reservations not needed
Atmosphere: This is a wonderful combination – a sports bar and a restaurant serving insanely crispy, crunchy, oversized orders of Korean chicken with lots of crispy, crunchy, oversized side dishes. If there’s a big game on, expect a big crowd.
Prices: About $25 per person
Suggested dishes: 9 Original Fried Chicken Preps ($15.99-$27.99), 12 Snow Onion Chicken Preps ($18.99-$28.99), 9 Ultra Crispy Tikkudak Chicken Preps ($18.99-$28.99), 9 Specialty Chicken Preps ($18.99-$28.99), 4 Entrees ($20.99), 12 Side Dishes ($5.99-$12.99)
Credit cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)