Colonel Sanders had his original recipe. The peeps at Ponko Chicken have theirs.
Twenty years ago, sisters Reiko Clark and Maggie Antoine opened a Stone Mountain restaurant called Food Ease, where they developed a following around Antoine’s panko-crusted, sweet-soy-sauce-drizzled “Amer-Asian chicken tenders.” Eventually they changed the name to Ponko Chicken, after their most famous bite, since, according to Clark, that’s all anybody wanted anyway. But after the economy tanked in 2008, they closed the restaurant, only to resurface last October with an updated, fast-casual concept on Chamblee Tucker Road.
“We are third-generation Japanese-American girls,” Clark told me over the phone, explaining the Ponko origin story. Seems the namesake chicken was inspired by Japanese tonkatsu, a pork cutlet that’s pounded flat, coated with breadcrumbs and fried to a delectable crisp. Antoine didn’t invent the chicken tender: She just gave it a tonkatsu redo, sliced it into strips and glazed it lightly with secret sauce.
Paired with fries, slaw, rice, potato salad and other sides, most with a vaguely Asian accent, Ponko is a noteworthy alternative to Chick-fil-A or Zaxby’s. The Ponko style can be experienced in a variety of iterations: chicken or tofu tenders; vegan, vegetarian or chicken cutlets; salads topped with any of the above; sandwiches.
In its spiffy new digs, Ponko Chicken offers beer, wine, and sake-based cocktails, too.
After three visits, my response is generally favorable — with a few caveats.
Take the salads, for instance: Chopped romaine, purple cabbage, carrots and crispy wonton strips are served in plastic containers that recall airport food and takeout windows. If you must eat leafy greens, I recommend the full-size version with chopped chicken tenders and a drizzle of sweet sesame or walnut-cilantro dressing.
I enjoyed the chicken breast sandwich, dressed with slaw and mayo, though the Ponko fries lost their appeal the minute they cooled. That was right around the time my dear dining companion quipped that she’d rather eat Chick-fil-A. (Touche!) Loved the creamy potato salad, the sweet-sesame slaw and the mandoline-thin cucumber pickles with a hint of rice vinegar. Didn’t care for the generous portion of dry, overcooked sweet-potato fries.
As for the drinks, I could go for one of the nicely balanced, not-too-prickly sake-based bloody marys just about any morn. Never want to taste the Ponko With a Punch cocktail again. (If you must know, it’s “house-made tropical punch,” pineapple and lime juice, sake and a maraschino cherry — and rather vile.) The green-tea lemonade is a decent sipper, not too sweet, but it has nothing on Chick-fil-A’s regular lemonade or Arnold Palmer.
My best Ponko experiences were two easy-breezy, in-and-out solo stops. The Ponko tenders, with spicy, barbecue or original sauce, were tasty enough to merit a return.
Stopping by with a date on a Tuesday night, the restaurant was so in the weeds it lost track of my party of two.
TWO PEOPLE! God forbid we’d been four. We waited for our drinks and food for more than 30 minutes. Eventually, the wrong order was placed on our table. We sat for a few minutes longer. We got a little grumpy. “For fast food, it’s not very fast,” dear friend snipped. Thankfully, the chirpy staff is pretty adept at soothing ruffled feathers.
Clark tells me this latest venture is a prototype for a chain, that plans are being hatched for more Ponko Chicken coops. She says the little-biddy customers she fed back in the day, at the original Stone Mountain location, have discovered her new perch and are coming back with their own kids in tow.
I’m a sentimental sucker when it comes to stories about successful entrepreneurs with strong community ties. Indeed, Ponko has potential, and at $10 for a protein and two sides, it’s a decent value. But it needs a little finessing and, perhaps, a little self-reflection about where it wants to go. Is it possible that Ponko is overreaching already?
Indeed, Atlanta is not lacking in fast fried chicken. Just ask the Colonel.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. 2896 Chamblee Tucker Road, Atlanta. 770-451-4251, ponkochicken.com.
Recommended: Ponko chicken tenders. Chicken breast sandwich. Sweet-sesame coleslaw. Potato salad. Pickles. Bloody mary.