Bonchon's Korean Crispy Goodness
To most Southerners, the mere mention of fried chicken conjures very specific flavor and tactile expectations. There are brines, almost always of buttermilk, which lead to juicy flesh. And there is seasoned crust, in thick and thin versions, with nubs and ridges that hopefully cast off excess oil to remain relatively greaseless and crisp. Sometimes there's a breathtaking drizzle of honey that falls in golden, sticky strands, or a sprinkling of piquant vinegar or, for the ultimate in coronary masochism, a ladle of black pepper gravy. And there are biscuits — there are always biscuits.
It's the crust, though, that causes the pupils of most fried chicken fanatics to dilate. It's the crunchy texture and salty, savory seasonings that shift salivary glands into overdrive. It's the chicken fat that has rendered from beneath the skin, leaving behind a trace of poultry. The crust is what ignites us when we take the first bite of a piece of fried chicken, and it's what we desperately scrape away with our teeth after we've taken our last.
So it seems as though opening a restaurant that prominently features fried chicken with hardly any crust at all would be suicide anywhere in the South, Texas included.
But that's exactly what the folks behind Blue Ocean Capital LLC did last year when they opened a BonChon franchise on Upper Greenville Avenue. The international chain that started in Korea and went on to open restaurants in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and seven states across the U.S. has built a reputation on chicken known not for a thick and bready crust but a sleek and crisp, almost translucent veneer. BonChon's chicken parts are draped in satin lingerie; the other guys' wear bulky sweaters.
The exterior is the result of BonChon's multi-step process, which has origins in Korea, where chicken fried by a similar means is available on street corners everywhere. Cooks lightly dredge the chicken in flour, then in a very thin batter before it's deep-fried. Halfway through the cooking process the chicken is pulled from the oil to rest, giving the meat a chance to take a breather and preventing overcooking. But the resting period also gives the cook a chance to shake the chicken in a wire basket, breaking off irregular and pointy shards of breading and reducing the exterior to a paper-thin coating. Then the wings are fried again, a step that finishes cooking the meat while making the outer crust and skin mouth-shatteringly crisp.
In Korea this technique is used with smaller birds that are fried whole and cleaved into manageable pieces before they're happily consumed with copious amounts of beer and soju. Here in the U.S., where chickens have been engineered to have breasts like Victoria's Secret models, the wings and legs are used alone to ensure even cooking. The booze thing translates perfectly no matter where you're eating the chicken.
At least it does when it's flowing smoothly. Blue Ocean Capital hired Stewart Murray, who previously worked as a food and beverage manager at a resort and conference center, as the general manager of its first BonChon location. Murray was shipped to Manhattan, where he worked at an existing restaurant and learned all of the chain's closely guarded recipes and how to coat wings in the thinnest coat of batter and gently paint them with a sauce so they wouldn't become soggy. He learned how to oil a hot dolsot (a stoneware bowl) so the rice for a bibimbap would become crispy. He learned everything except the hardest thing in the restaurant business to teach: how to find good employees.
BonChon landed in Dallas in December with all the grace of a drunken moose. The waitstaff and bartenders were overwhelmed with a surge of curious customers, and the kitchen turned out inconsistent and tepid food. Wait times approached an hour, and tensions were high. The restaurant was in such a state that Murray and his team closed it five days after opening to reorganize.
But if you've dropped into BonChon recently, it seems the Korean fried chicken storm has calmed considerably since those first blustery days. Murray has dialed in a more adequate staff and on a recent Friday night the dining room was busy, but not overwhelmed. If you've been interested in the restaurant but have yet to try it, the time is now.
For maximum enjoyment, have a seat at the massive bar that arcs through the dining room, in front of one of the flat-screen TVs if you've got any skin in the game. You won't have to wait long before you have a cold beer and a menu. The taps pour local brews from Community, Peticolas and others, but it's the commodity beers like Bud Light, Miller and Sapporo that make a much better pairing for the Korean fried chicken.
Personality-free, cheap beer has the cool crispness, neutral flavor and effervescence that offer the perfect counterpoint to the salty, fatty, sweet and spicy flavors found in BonChon's chicken. Order the hot wings and you'll also receive a small bowl of pickled daikon radish cubes that are at once sweet and vinegary. A small bite of radish washes the palate clean, preparing it for the next bite of chicken or the next slug of beer. It's this endless repetition of juxtaposing flavors, textures and temperatures that makes eating Korean fried chicken so exhilarating.
Soy garlic wings with a sweet and sticky glaze are available if you're troubled by heat, and you can order a mix of half and half if you'd like to ease yourself into the furnace more cautiously.
Other food is on the menu, but the wings are why you'll return. There are potstickers filled with pork and fried to a crispness that rivals the skin on the chicken, and the bibimbap is quite good as well. Served in a stone bowl as hot as the grates on your stove, the dish sizzles when it arrives and continues to hiss and pop as you peck through layers of spinach, mushrooms, pickled radish and other vegetables with your chopsticks. If you choose meat for your bibimbap, go with the beef bulgolgi over chicken and don't miss the layer of rice at the bottom of the bowl that's been seared to a crunchy crisp.
Avoid the shrimp dumplings that arrive like seafood-flavored gumdrops and a Korean-style pancake that should be crisp but shows up doughy and pasty. Korean tacos are a little better, but they could use some tortillas that are a little less like plasticine. The fried chicken, on the other hand, arrives consistently hot, spicy and crunchy every time.
Without a buttermilk bath and without black pepper gravy, BonChon could potentially cause visiting Texan fried chicken fans a bit of angst. But the restaurant that has made its name following a fried chicken recipe from the other side of the globe does offer one small concession. There are no biscuits, but there is coleslaw, a creamy rich rendition that would be at home on any Texas table.
There's also a Korean version that makes use of wilted cabbage and spices that tinge the creamy base a shade of sunset orange. It's like American coleslaw with a bit of Korean flare. And it's hands-down an improvement.
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