Coordinating out-of-the-city errands isn’t always easy. I wanted drivable Korean fried chicken but that would involve Queens or Northern New Jersey and neither of those were places where I wanted to shop (Union and Middlesex counties).
Then I remembered Bon Chon Staten Island, which would be en route to my desired part of the Garden State. Initially, I didn’t believe there was such a branch, but more than once I found those keywords misguidedly bringing searchers to this site so I had to investigate. Yes, there’s Korean fried chicken in Staten Island. Weird. For all its bravado, Brooklyn certainly lacks in the Asian food arena, multiple Chinatowns or not.
But I wanted sit-down rather than takeout, which was the impression I’d gotten about S.I., so fried chicken was nixed and general Korean was substituted into the schedule. I’ll admit that I’m kind of a Korean food idiot having never ventured past the obvious like bbq and bibimbap. I do like spicy and pickled so there’s no reason why I should avoid it, it’s just never around.
Based on some internet randomness, I settled on Kimchi Hana in South Plainfield’s Middlesex Mall. Now, Middlesex Mall is only a mall in that there’s a row of storefronts; some are empty, others occupied by the likes of Dollar Tree, Radio Shack (which saved my life with in-stock earphone pads. Do you know how difficult it is to find replacement pads for earbuds in stores? I ended up ordering from Amazon and incorrectly buying the wrong size, which were the circumference of an oatmeal cookie) and a more busted looking Macy’s than the one on Fulton Mall, which also isn’t a real mall. I knew what I was in for after reading a local resident’s lament.
What didn’t occur to me was to make a reservation. I clearly don’t have the suburban know-how down because I don’t equate strip mall restaurants with advance planning. And it was busy at an early-ish 7pm, but not insanely so. No one was waiting in the lobby when we showed up. We weren’t asked if we had reservations, though, just whether or not we wanted a bbq table. It seemed like getting a grill would be a problem, plus I trying to expand my culinary horizons, so we went the easiest route and agreed to any table available, which ended up being a standard four-seater in the back half of the smoky room.
This was fine for about ten minutes while we tried to interpret some language on the menu. There was a section of grilled meats but it said you could only order those at bbq tables (though later we noticed cast iron plates of kalbi and the like on grill-free tables. Perhaps they meant you just couldn’t cook it yourself?). While pondering, a woman who seemed to be the boss, came over and told us that we needed to move because someone had reserved this table.
Here we go…the Saturday night nuisance again (and I don’t need anonymous assholes telling me to stay home, thanks, everyone’s entitled to a reasonable dining experience). I don’t mind sitting at a two-top but I could already foresee a problem with fitting dishes into the abbreviated space. The banchan alone (which I do love about Korean cuisine) would take up a majority of the open area.
There were seven dishes, a spinach-like vegetable was off to the left. Those pictured included kimchi, baby bok choy, bean curd, octopus, radish and seaweed.
And sure enough, after ordering two appetizers and two entrees we were admonished, “That’s a lot of food.” No, not really. We were ordering a reasonably sized meal and it was now up to them to figure out how they were going to fit all of the dishes.
Sashimi came first, and the raised wooden board wasn’t too much of a hindrance. These were some hefty slabs of fish and considerably fresher than the disconcertingly room temperature slices I’d been served the previous day at Gold St. in the Financial District.
The girthy pajun arrived soon after. Pan-fried cakes can get a little doughy, though this seafood-stuffed one maintained a fair amount of crispiness. I will admit that these greasy treats are probably better divvied up between more than two diners, especially since it doesn’t lend itself to leftovers.
The seafood hot pot was a bit problematic to eat because of broth’s high temperature (the photo is steamy) and the weight of the vessel. Normally, I would ask for two small bowls as other tables seemed to have but there was nowhere to put them. So, I had to carefully rearrange the other dishes and scoot the little cauldron near me, trying not to splash, eat a few bites, then maneuver it back towards James so he could have some.
The soup was black pepper and chile flake hot, the type that doesn’t hit until you swallow and get the urge to cough. A little of everything was included: shell-on crab chunk, clams, tiny shrimp, hefty tofu squares, wedges of fish and decorative pink-rimmed fish cake slice. It seemed right for a spring day that had turned chilly and wet.
Chicken was a misstep. I still had fried chicken on the brain so those two words jumped out at me from the kan poong gi description, but as you can see it was essentially sweet and sour chicken. There was a hint of heat and a scattering of bizarrely firm peas and carrots. It wasn’t horrific by any means but wasn’t what I was craving.
The danger of not eating what you wanted is that you (ok, I) will just end up double dinnering to make up for that empty feeling (in your soul, not your stomach, duh). But really, would two measly midnight snack wings harm anyone?
Of course not, so even while we were enjoying our early evening dinner at Kimchi Hana, James was looking up the address of that Staten Island Bon Chon (normally, I’m very opposed to device use during meals but sometimes BlackBerrys [ever since reading Gael Greene’s take on Momofuku Ko I want to call them BlueBerrys, too] redeem themselves).
The brightly lit take out restaurant (there are three tables and counter seating) barely stands out on a corner jumble of businesses including a Papa John’s, hair salon and bi-level Blockbuster.
And if you didn’t catch a glimpse of the cooks through the swinging kitchen door, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the franchise was Asian. That’s not the angle they’re taking, and wisely so since Staten Island has never struck me as Korean in the least.
Their selling point is simple: fried chicken. The main hindrance I see is price. I don’t frequent KFC (or Kennedy) but I’m fairly certain that Korean fried chicken costs more than its American fast food counterpart. It’s classy. And the uber cheerful counter girl was desperate to give samples and win over customers. Upon entering we were asked in a heavy NYC twang, “Have you been here before?” She seemed a little defeated when I responded, “No, but I’ve been to the one in Manhattan.” I soon realized that she likes explaining the menu and every combo option. I’m just not accustomed to so much self-driven helpfulness at a fast food joint. We did allow her to convince us to order half hot wings and half soy garlic. The drumsticks were all hot, though.
The cashier did get to work her powers of persuasion on the guy who came in after me. The clientele appears to be of the “lemme get” variety, and no that’s not code for black. Lemme gets are just New Yorkers and can be any race or ethnicity, though in this particular instance the customer seemed Puerto Rican and had a little black girl in tow who wasn’t allowed a free sample because she couldn’t eat after 8pm. I’d never heard of such a thing but the counter girl confided that her cousin was the same way. I don’t know if they meant can’t physically eat after 8pm or not allowed to. I’d be annoyed as a kid if my adult companion was ordering chicken strips and fries and I couldn’t have any.
I was expecting a long wait since Bon Chon is notorious for that and even warns on their promotional magnets to call ahead 20 minutes in advance. But our order was snappy—maybe it had been sitting around? The thing is, you probably couldn’t tell because the crust has serious staying power. Hours later, ours was still crispy.
I was kind of hoping we’d get pickled radish with take out but we didn’t. Tart crunchiness always goes with spice and oil. And this spicy is dry, slightly sweet and punchy, which blasphemously, I prefer over the vinegary Buffalo style. I don’t like the wet mess, though I may be alone—KFC already removed their new-for-2008 sauceless hot wings from the menu.
Kimchi Hana * 6101 Hadley Rd., South Plainfield, NJ
Bon Chon Chicken * 1267 Forest Ave., Staten Island, NY