After signing the lease to an empty building in Lakewood in November 2019, Ivy Pham was committed to making her dream of opening a fried chicken restaurant concept work. To build up capital, she took on another job, invested personal savings, and planned to open Kickin’ Chicken—a fast-casual restaurant that seasons strips of fried chicken with flavors from around the world—in 2020. There was just one thing she needed to learn: “[I had] never fried chicken in my entire life and I signed this lease and I was like ‘OK, now I gotta get to work on recipes,’” Pham says.
The results weren’t good at first. Pham burned the chicken or over-salted it. She wondered what she’d gotten herself into. Fortunately, she had several months to perfect the recipe between signing the lease and when the restaurant opened. She bought a commercial fryer for her home kitchen, played with recipes, and fried cutlet after cutlet for months until she got it right—perfecting it in time for the restaurant’s opening in July 2020.
Pham and her brother (and Kickin’ Chicken co-owner) John grew up in Denver—where their mother emigrated from Vietnam after the war in the 1970s and began working in restaurants. She bussed tables, washed dishes, served, and eventually opened two pho restaurants: Pho Hau in Lakewood and Top Pho in Aurora. Naturally, that’s where Ivy and John spent much of their time as children.
“I’m a restaurant kid at heart,” Pham says. After school, that’s where she went and helped however she could. In college, she worked in other restaurants and continued working at her family’s pho restaurants. After college, she worked in the cannabis industry and at startups, but food remained a north star.
On weekends, Pham would occasionally take food-centric vacations to places like Los Angeles, where fried chicken restaurants abound. With a twist, she thought she could bring something unique to Denver.
“Every culture has their variation on fried chicken, whether it’s in Hawaii, whether it’s in Japan, Korea, America, the South,” Pham says. “There’s just fried chicken everywhere.”
At Kickin’ Chicken, guests can feast on crispy, juicy fried chicken infused with a range of global flavors. Of course, there is a comforting American-style fried chicken sandwich, served on thick Texas toast and topped with sweet and tangy Vietnamese slaw. For her take on a Southern-inspired chicken and waffles dish, Pham eschews the sweet Belgian-style waffle in favor of a savory, cheddar-jalapeño, Hong Kong-style bubble waffle; a popular street food in the city, typically made with more egg than Belgian waffle batter and with a different press. The treat resembles bubble wrap rather than a recessed grid. Her chicken katsu is served over fried rice with a side of light, sweet macaroni salad. And purists can order three of the restaurant’s signature, lightly crisped chicken tenders accompanied by mac salad, Vietnamese slaw, fried rice, french fries, or elote.
“I like simplicity in menus,” Pham says. “I just know that working in restaurants or being around them, oftentimes larger menus—bibles of menus—don’t always equate to freshness.”
Despite the meticulous preparations, opening the restaurant didn’t come without challenges. The Phams had to navigate confusing restaurant restrictions in the midst of the pandemic. Friends and family asked if they had considered pulling out, but they had invested too much already. On opening day, someone launched a rock through the window. Pham replaced the window only to have it broken again. All in all, the restaurant was vandalized four times, around the same period that anti-Asian American violence rose in the U.S. But Kickin’ Chicken took the rocks in, named them, put them on a shelf, and gave them a home.
“For us, we were trying to change a hateful situation into a sense of hope and love, just kind of poke fun at it,” Pham says. “And now, Bob [the rock] is part of the family. He has a little plaque and everything.”
Before long, the restaurant saw a steady stream of customers. Within a month after opening, it sold out of its entire menu regularly and had to close early. Now the Phams are looking for a potential second location in Denver or Aurora.
Pham still works a separate job as a culinary expert at a startup, and at the restaurant, she wears many hats and works alongside her employees. “I’m anything and everything Kickin’ Chicken needs,” she says. “Cleaner, cook, accountant, cashier, prepper, dish washer, and even the occasional toilet scrubber. You name it, I’m there.” There’s no need to argue who takes on what role, she says, as long as the task gets done. Pham credits her hard work ethic to her mother, who fled Vietnam and came to the U.S. with just $200 and eventually realized her own dreams.
“My mom is my number one inspiration,” Pham says. “I’m able to be creative in my generation because of her.”
275 S. Union Blvd., Lakewood