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International Intrigue: BB.Q Chicken

bbq chicken facade

It was over a decade ago that BonChon first showed up in NYC and made a splash with the novel concept of Korean fried chicken. With Kyedong (now Kono), Kyochon, Turntable, and Unidentified Flying Chicken, among others, it’s different landscape now.

bbq chicken downstairs

In Manhattan’s Koreatown, Kyochon fizzled a few months ago and a flashy bi-level flagship BB.Q Chicken might be here to reclaim Korean fried chicken’s former glory. (There were two previous incarnations in Manhattan and still one in Flushing, I think.) Despite the unremarkable name (it stands for Best of the Best Quality) the word has traveled fast. Early on a Friday night, a line started forming for the subterranean table service space and wound up the stairs.

bbq chicken

I tried a sampler of the four primary styles. The simplest version, maybe the calling card, is fried in olive oil and supposedly is the product of a two-day marinating and coating process. It’s very good, juicy, super crisp (rice flour is no joke) and just the right batter to meat ratio. A honey glazed version was like candy, which I loved, though people who don’t like monte cristo sandwiches, bisteeya, or just Chinese-American sweet and sour nuggets should steer clear. Gang-jeong was lightly sweet, garlicky, and spicy, and similar to the non-hot style at BonChon.

I was actually impressed with the “cheesling” style (top right) first for cute name and novelty (mascarpone and cheddar?), but then for flavor. It was totally like cheese popcorn, maybe specifically Smartfood, but meaty. I like the modern Korean taste for adding cheese where it doesn’t belong. The first sit-down thing I ate in Seoul were kimchi fries and there are similar snacky dishes on this menu like bulgogi nachos and cheese fries. 

bbq chicken upstairs

Counter service and to-go are on the main floor. (There was a suspicious lack of cheesling on the shelves). There were an impressive range of alcoholic beverages like canned Pampelonne rosé lime wine and a handful of German beers in addition to the OB, Hite, and fruity shoju. 

bbq chicken uni

Chicken University!

BB.Q Chicken * 25 W. 32nd St., New York, NY


National Republic of Food


There is a new site called Food Republic that’s messing with my mind (so is Eataly's soon-to-open La Birreria, which I always read as birrieria and get excited that NYC's getting a Mexican goat soup restaurant) not because it’s yet one more thing Marcus Samuelsson has been dipping his colorful sneaker-shod toes into, but because Food Republic is the name of Singaporean chain of themed food courts that I love. Really love. A food court with a library motif in a massive mall? I fantasize about making like those Thai girls who brought BonChon to Bangkok and opening a franchise in NYC.

Of course, serious food-lovers and expats, in particular, hate these soulless, overpriced, contemporary adaptations of hawker stalls. This week, CNNgo wound up commenters with a “Singapore’s Top 5 New Hawker Spots” post where three of the five examples were Food Republic branches. I think the title is the biggest problem; it needs a qualifier like modern or indoor.

Me, I like the elaborate, air-conditioned evolution and street carts and worn shophouses. What I find fascinating—and what others might call sad—is that many of these vendors are street stall transplants. For instance, the beef noodles sold at Food Opera, the food court inside the ION Orchard Shopping Mall, aren’t approximations churned out by a no-nothing upstart, they are the fourth iteration of a stall that opened in the 1940s. Then again, the most recent version was relocated to the mall because the owner’s spot was subsumed by a new apartment complex. Progress over preservation, is still the order of the day in much of Asia’s urban centers.

Singapore has always come across as a bit sanitized and un-sentimental, and I don't necessarily mean that pejoratively. I wonder if they have neighborhood booster bloggers like we do in NYC, who mourn the loss of old signage, mom-and-pop businesses and last-century grit?

Photo credit: WiNG via Wikimedia Commons

Korean Chicken Joints For Thai Palettes


We’ve come to take Korean fried chicken for granted in NYC. It’s everywhere, even Sheepshead Bay (r.i.p. Staten Island BonChon) not just in Asian enclaves. We’ve been luckier than Thailand where the spicy, extra-crunchy chicken did not exist…until now.

A couple of Thai college students who went to school here wanted to recreate the experience back home. They followed through (how do you just open a foreign chain like that?) and now Bangkok has witnessed the birth of its first BonChon Chicken franchise in the Seenspace mall (I wonder how that Goth mall is doing?) and it has a New York theme, which is so triply cross-cultural it’s almost freaking me out (just almost, because I did eat Korean fried chicken at a place called Chill Out Sports Bar in Hong Kong that had New York-based articles on the wall, so this is not the first re-import back to Asia).

Chicken joints From what I can see on the menu, which is only on Facebook (I love how the one white guy in their photos had to be wearing a fedora) at the moment, the only obvious Thai tweak is the presence of sticky rice and the only oddity is something they’re calling chicken joints. Pardon my poultry ignorance, but what part of the bird is this?

I only wish that my eyes had not seen the words “Thai palette” mentioned in the original post.

Photo credit: BonChon Chicken Thailand

The Final Spicy Drumstick


The generically named BBQ Chicken (not to be confused with Dallas BBQ where I also ate this week) is the subject of my final Fast Food International column for Serious Eats. I didn’t run out of steam; the city ran out of fodder.

The outdoor food court/strip mall next to our hotel in Penang (during a vacation March of last year—I’m afraid 2010 was lucky with Bangkok, Penang, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Montreal. This year has been a vacation bust so far and I have unlimited vacation days at work—such a waste) had a BBQ Chicken and I wasn’t familiar with the South Korean chain at all. It doesn’t seem to get the same accolades as BonChon or Kyochon…or even Kyedong...maybe not CheoGaJip. Which reminds me, I’m completely Korean fried chickened-out.

Time to move onto something new for the rest of 2011.

Bon Chon Chicken John St.

If you told me we were going to have two banh mi options when I first starting working way downtown, I might not have believed you. And Korean fried chicken? Not at all. I’m happy for the new Bon Chon, though it's still not clear who the target audience is for this location. There is a counter to order takeout in the back, a row of maybe five tables for four along one wall and a bar opposite them.

It is still more inviting than the strip mall Staten Island Bon Chon, which despite a few stools near the window, is very much a takeout operation. If you were an office worker looking for fried chicken takeout lunch you might be weirded out by the prominent bar (unless you're ok with drinking during the day–I've been tempted many an afternoon). If you wanted the dark, clubbier atmosphere from the Koreatown original, the bright lights and small space would put you off. On a Friday around 6:30pm, the clientele was maybe 65% Asian and mostly young, mixed with a few curiosity-seekers like myself, checking out the new digs before heading home. Residents of nearby dorms also seem like an obvious customer.

Bonchon mixed chicken

No arguments with the chicken. The skin is shiny and shellacked to perfection as ever, the air pocket between the crust and the dark meat revealed after the initial bite. We ordered both hot and garlic soy because I couldn't remember which I liked better. The hot, as it turned out, which isn’t all that fiery.

Bonchon radish & kimchi coleslaw

Kimchi coleslaw was chosen as our side (fries or a roll seemed odd) and came served in a little square dish along with the standard pickled radish. Fresh cabbage shreds, fermented cabbage hunks and a sparing amount of mayonnaise to hold the two together, wasn't exactly cooling but complemented the chicken.

Bonchon calimari

More fried food wasn't wise and breaded calamari rings are in no way special like the chicken. Like the chicken, though, they aren't wildly greasy.  I just didn't want a salad or dumplings and had already tried the pancake before.

Bonchon black & tan

I've not had good past experiences with sake cocktails and love the novelty of pitchers, so yes to beer and no to Asian pear soju. This Guinness/Blue Moon blend was like a giant black and tan—is that normal?

Bon Chon Chicken * 104 John St., New York, NY

Kimchi Hana & Bon Chon Chicken Staten Island

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