Best friends going into the restaurant business together can be a recipe for disaster.
But that has not been the case for Tommy Nguyen and Wilson To, co-founders of local restaurant Cross Street Chicken and Beer, which has three locations around San Diego.
Cross Street Chicken and Beer specializes in different types of chicken marinated in Korean spices then cooked in classic U.S. Southern style. The poultry is then paired for those interested with 20 on-tap craft beers and more than a dozen specialty cocktails.
Cross Street Chicken and Beer has had a sweet run of success for five years and recently opened a third location east of Del Mar near Carmel Valley. Its original spot is on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa and a second location opened in 2019 on Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad.
Twenty years have passed since Nguyen and To first met as 12-year-olds at Farb Middle School in Tierrasanta.
“Tommy was honestly the only other Asian guy I saw in my school on the first day of class in 2002, and that’s how we started being friends,” To recalled. “At that age, just having that common ground of ethnicity was good enough, although we also shared similar interests in cars and music.”
Nguyen and To – along with Nguyen’s wife, Grace Chi – opened the first Cross Street location on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa in 2017, and followed that up with a second location in Carlsbad two years later.
Nguyen and To remained close friends throughout high school at Serra High, from where they graduated in 2007, and then both attending college at San Diego State.
“It was always a dream of ours to start a business together,” said Nguyen. “I trust him to death with my life. We wanted to build a place where we could have friends come and join us in a nice, comfortable spot.”
While Nguyen and Chi are the co-owners of TNGN Enterprises, Inc., To is a founding partner.
Chi Family Operates Many Local Restaurants
Chi’s family has a long history running successful restaurants in San Diego, operating many, including Grandma Tofu and Korean BBQ, Friends House Korean, Olleh Korean BBQ and Bing Haus.
In February, the trio opened their third Cross Street Chicken and Beer location, on the second floor at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
“We got a lot of feedback from our customers at our Convoy location that they wanted us to move north, so that’s why we opened up the Carlsbad location (in 2019),” Nguyen said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we got an opportunity to open at Del Mar Highlands and we were told that our concept and brand could do really well in that area, that Del Mar wanted a little more of an Asian influence.”
Besides chicken, the venue offers fried rice, beer-battered fries, tater tots, chipotle cole slaw, kimchi, corn poppers and even plant-based options for non-chicken eaters.
Business is Hopping
Business has been hopping since a grand opening event held in March drew people with a unique concept – NFT passes for Cross Street members, with NFT bridging the gap between the tech world and restaurant world, Nguyen said.
Twenty-five NFT memberships were given away at the promotion, which allows holders exclusive deals, including one free beer every day for a year, free merchandise and opportunities to move ahead of the crowd in the reservation line.
Nguyen said the creation of Cross Street was “not just great Korean fried chicken and comfort food but a place where family and friends can go grab dinner or close a business deal in a comfortable spot.”
To said that Cross Street brings together two major passions he and Nguyen have: fried chicken and craft beer.
To also said the combination of chicken and alcohol is not something that is out of the ordinary in parts of Asia.
He said that the pairing chicken with beer is a popular concept in Korea known as “chimaek,” – with the “chi” coming from the word chicken and the “maek” from “maekju,” the Korean word for beer — and that chimaek is typically served in the evening in many South Korean restaurants. It is a part of a social event known as “anju,” a Korean term for food served with alcohol.
The restaurant has earned countless awards for its concept and food, Nguyen said, including a moment as one of USA Today’s Top 20 fried chicken places in the U.S., best chicken wings from San Diego Magazine in 2018, taking top honors for best wings at San Diego’s Wing Fest in 2019, and an award as “best food champion” at the San Diego Beer Fest.
While the two friends credit their consistent, loyal customer base for spreading the word about the restaurant, the Cooking Channel recently took note and put Cross Street on the world radar.
Nguyen said the cable station shut down one of the Cross Street Chicken and Beer sites to film — and has been airing an episode of Food Paradise called “Extra Crispy” featuring the restaurant.
“It blew us out of the park to be on the Cooking Channel,” Nguyen said. “That helped put us out there to the world. I’m still trying to absorb what happened!”
‘From Zero to 100!’
Within the past few years, Cross Street Chicken and Beer has “gone from zero to 100, it has been insane!” Nguyen said.
The two came up with the name “Cross Street” for geographical reasons, with the venue’s first location on Convoy located at the cross street of Armour Street. The second spot is in Carlsbad’s Windmill Food Hall.
“It’s also a play on the childhood joke, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’” To said.
Nguyen said the restaurants are doing well enough that they are looking into expansion in the near future and considering new spots in downtown San Diego and/or National City.
He said they also have been eyeing expanding into Las Vegas near The Strip and even had an opportunity to open a spot in Dallas.
“We need to make more of a footprint in San Diego before we go outside the state but we will wait for that time to come,” Nguyen said.
“The goal for the next several years is to franchise our brand and that way kind of take it nationwide,” he said. “For now, we’re staying active with our community and the neighborhoods that support us. Rather than just another restaurant on the block, we’ve always wanted people to feel like family. That’s why we got into the industry – to share what we love.”
Cross Street Chicken and Beer
FOUNDERS: Tommy Nguyen and Grace Chi
FOUNDING PARTNER: Wilson To
HEADQUARTERS: 4403 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa
CONTACT: (858) 430-6001
NOTABLE: Cross Street Chicken and Beer hopes to expand to downtown San Diego and/or National City in the near future.