Marvin Nguyen’s aunt and uncle, with help from his father, opened the original Manchu Food Store in New Orleans back in 1991. Since then, it’s become an institution. This Vietnamese-owned takeout joint, fronting as a corner store on Claiborne Avenue, is famous for slinging its fried chicken wings and other Nguyen family specialties to the masses. As one New Orleans magazine describes it, “Manchu is no place for hanging around. On the corner, there’s traffic, and inside there’s traffic. A mad carousel of bodies revolves in hunger.”
The new Manchu on Richmond’s North Side, which Nguyen and his parents opened in May, evokes a similar vibe. Though I wouldn’t exactly describe the lunchtime crowd here as a “mad carousel” — more of an enthusiastic conga line — the Richmond outpost embodies that charmingly no-frills, efficiency-driven spirit of its flagship.
Painted Barney-purple like the original, Richmond’s Manchu sits along a heavily trafficked section of North Avenue. Street parking is limited. A few risk-taking individuals park in adjoining lots, banking on getting in and out fast enough without getting towed.
Once inside, I followed the lead of my fellow customers — among them, police officers, firefighters and construction workers — all of whom seemed to know their way around. Like a choreographed dance, we waltzed, one by one, up to the counter where Nguyen took our orders, then we sashayed over to wait for our food .
The restaurant’s interior, stark but economical, with bare concrete floors and eight plastic folding chairs, makes the DMV seem like a five-star hotel. There’s no space for dining in. But if you’re coordinated enough to use your lap as a tabletop, you can eat in your car.
Manchu’s menu captures a lively and flavorful mix of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cajun influences. The famous fried chicken wings ($5.99 for a six-piece plate with two sides), based on a recipe that Nguyen’s aunt created, were some of the best I’ve had. The wings, pulled straight from the deep fryer, came in a plastic foam takeout box with delightfully eggy fried rice.
The wings were textured like a 1970s popcorn ceiling. They sported a festive sort of crunch, the kind that’s light and amiable, not unbearably heavy or burdensome. The fresh sheen of grease that lacquered the wings and the succulent juices that seeped out of them made a hot but delicious mess all over my fingertips. At the tail-end of every bite was a soft tickle of cayenne and other Cajun spices.
Manchu also does a bang-up version of yakamein ($5.99), that soupiest of hangover cures some credit the Chinese for introducing to the Big Easy. The dish, slurped from a plastic soup container, was hardly luxurious. Suspended in a salty, golden broth spiked with hot sauce were simple spaghetti noodles snaking through an underwater seascape of meaty scraps: cubes of canned ham, chunks of boiled shrimp and chicken, and sliced halves of an egg.
Yet there was a humbling kind of immigrant-inspired genius to the yakamein, a deliciousness borne out of necessity. It brought to mind the soupy concoctions my mother used to make for me from whatever was left in the pantry, like boxed macaroni with chicken stock and sliced luncheon meat.
Memorable though less commanding dishes on the menu included Cajun specialties, such as the shrimp po’boy ($7.99) and gumbo ($5.99). The po’boy, a loaf of crusty-chewy bread stuffed as full as a duffel bag in a bank heist, was brimming with golden nuggets of shrimp. The shrimp’s fried and jagged edges gently vaporized in my mouth, as if they’d been an illusion all along.
The murky-brown gumbo was awash with smoky andouille sausage, shredded chicken, okra and red beans, all swimming about a solitary island of white rice. The gumbo had a peppery buzz to it, though I wish there were a few more dimensions of flavor to this dish.
The most recognizably Vietnamese menu item — the banh mi ($5.49) — was also solid. Cradled in a lightly toasted tube of French bread, brushed with sweet mayonnaise, were tender strips of grilled chicken, their flavors reminiscent of the chicken in a Vietnamese bun ga nuong. The only missing element was the pickled vegetables whose presence in a traditional banh mi adds a welcome layer of sweet acidity.
It’s fair to say, you might find yourself a bit turned around and confused when you first go to Manchu. You’ll probably be out of step with everyone else when placing your order. You might end up making a mess in your car. You could even get towed. But one thing is certain: You’ll never leave hungry or unsatisfied.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.