Billed as Carrollton's Koreatown, the Furneaux Creek Village Shopping Center is packed with Korean restaurants, a karaoke lounge and a pool hall featuring pocketless tables. There's a Mozart Bakery & Cafe, with its rich-smelling coffee punching you in the nose upon entrance, and an IHOP that stands out like a McDonald's on Embassy Row, a strange sight in a sea of barbecue restaurants and yogurt shops and CPAs, all marked in Hangul characters.
Tto Tto Wa Bistro is tucked away in the southwest corner of the open-air shopping center — an unfortunate location obscured by a massive H Mart storefront that draws shoppers by the thousands on weekends and late into evenings. If only a handful would venture just around the corner.
Tto Tto Wa's glowing sign can be confusing. The words — they mean "come again" in Korean — are perched directly over another sign: Pluschicken.com, the weathered letters read, and an assuring rooster gives an enthusiastic thumbs up. But that logo is a relic of the past. Number One Plus Chicken changed hands more than two years ago, when Angela Kim bought it and rechristened it Tto Tto Wa.
Kim had previously owned a bar called Bar A in Dallas' original Koreatown. But when she got engaged in the spring of 2010, she bought the new place in hopes that it could be operated as a family business, staffed by husband, wife and mother-in-law. The wedding plans didn't work out, though, and suddenly she found herself alone and in charge of a business she didn't know how to run.
The restaurant she bought had significant problems. Number One Plus Chicken was Jay Park's failed attempt at a franchised Korean fried-chicken joint. His original location, on Royal Lane, is still open, but his expansion plans died when he sold off his Carrollton branch.
Don't mistake Tto Tto Wa for a Plus Chicken re-hash, though. Kim brought with her the traditional Korean snacks she served at her old bar, including spicy chicken paws, chewy, fried chicken gizzards and chrysalis, small silkworm pupae she stir-fries with peppers, carrots and onions. To describe them as earthy is an understatement. The baby butterflies (moths, really) taste the way compost smells.
All that was missing was a special chicken recipe. Kim spent the first year asking Park how to cook and how to run her business while she dealt with the stress of running a restaurant alone. She bought pre-marinated chicken from the original Number One, to bread and fry at her location, before slathering it with sauce she bought from the same source.
But the plan wasn't working. Kim says customers complained about the chicken. The taste was off, they said. So she hired a new cook, Janie Bae, whom she met through a mutual friend. Bae ditched the old chicken recipe and came up with her own, based on some flavors she thought she recognized in Number One's finished product.
Now things look like this: Each day Bae cleans fresh chicken pieces before marinating them in a puree of vegetables, fruits, salt and pepper. After 24 hours, she lightly breads them in a mixture of cornstarch and all-purpose flour that sits beneath the worktable in bags the size of Labradors. She fries the pieces in oil till the skin crisps up but the flesh isn't quite done, and then she lets them cool completely.
When a customer orders spicy fried chicken, the staged fowl is pulled from a plastic storage bin and returned to the fryer until it's cooked through and its skin is as crisp as a kettle-cooked potato chip. Then it's hacked into pieces and coated in a sticky, sweet and spicy sauce. Honey and gojujang, a Korean chili paste, are prominent ingredients, but the rest is shrouded in lore — Janie Bae's recipe is, like all good recipes family or otherwise, a closely guarded secret.
Whatever is used in that euphoria-inducing chicken sauce, it's worth whatever your drive might be. It's worth a 40-minute ride on the Green Line from downtown. It might be worth the two hours and three buses it takes to get from Dallas to Carrollton, if that's your price for chicken nirvana. But only if you eat it like this:
Start with a small cube of pickled radish that comes with every order and then let the cold, sweet and bright snap wake up your palate. Grab a morsel of chicken with your chopsticks and take a tentative bite. Watch for bones. Savor the juxtaposition of sweet, savory and warmth, all punctuated with a crunchy skin that echoes the daikon. Bae even folds little balls of rice cake into the finished dish. They look and chew like mini marshmallows.
Wash this down with a big pull of cold beer from a frosty mug, and repeat: sweet daikon, spicy chicken, ice cold brew. Choose your own order if you like, so long as you cover your bases. This is a fine way to catch a buzz, as your mouth basks in a red chili paste-induced glow that trails down to your center and warms you from within.
Koreans seldom drink booze without a little something to snack on. And this is a nice way to spend a night or even an early morning. (Tto Tto Wa is open till 2 a.m., every day, and the crowd doesn't start to build till 9 p.m. on weekends.)
Coors Light is sold 3000 ccs (3 liters) at a time for $17. The beer arrives in an alien spaceship gumball machine, complete with a lighted, ice-filled cooling element and a lockable spigot for safe and pleasurable beer-dispensing.
You can buy bottles of beer, too, or sip on soju, a sweetened beverage distilled from potatoes, if that's your thing. But don't mix the two. Kim warned me that doing so would make me very drunk. So I did just that, proving her point to excess.
Even in my stupor, it wasn't hard to notice that every table ordered the spicy chicken. You'd be wise to follow suit. The chicken is popular with the regulars for a reason: It's by far Tto Tto Wa's most compelling dish.
Sitting at tiny tables nested in private booths, listening to Korean chatter sift through the campy pop music and watching plates go by, I could have drunk myself into somewhere else entirely. It's not a boisterous bar, or a dingy fried chicken hut, but something much more Zen. This is a reverent drinking den, with cheap beer and sticky chicken, that could just as easily be on the other side of the globe as it is in Carrollton.