Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cluckin' Awesome

Bon Chon (http://www.bonchon.com/)
6653 Little River Turnpike, #H, Annandale , VA
(located in the small size mall between Campbell Ferrera Nursery and Sambo restaurant)
703-750-1424

4.5 out of 5 grains of rice

The gauntlet had been thrown: Jon, our roving foreign correspondent, had posted up a rave review of Korean fried chicken directly from Korea, and the rest of us had to put the Virginia burbs to the test. Could Annandale really measure up to Seoul? We were soon to find out.

On Saturday night, our merry group descended upon Annandale for a night of hard-core Asian fabulousness: fried chicken-tasting, followed by red bean shaved ice and karaoke. As befitting our group adventure, this entry has multiple authors . . .

SK:

I admit, I was skeptical, even given Jon's glowing review. Could this chicken really tempt me into George Costanza-like behavior? Could its crispy caramelized skin make me forget all notions of KFC, Popeye's, and even my former downstairs neighbour's authentic homestyle southern fried chicken? Could it really be that good?

It could.

On the advice of AllTasteSame Senior Correspondent Lily C, we ordered in advance - from the car. We figured it'd take around 30 minutes to get there, by which time the chicken would be ready - and the formula worked perfectly. By the time we arrived at the actually very nicely done chicken joint (ambient lighting, flat-screen TVs - where was the fluorescent lighting and linoleum we'd been expecting?), braving some truly impressive thunderstorms along the way, the chicken was almost ready. Just time for us to order some beers, have a few small plates of kimchee, and prime the taste buds. Within a few minutes, the chicken arrived - two large platters of drumsticks and wings, equally divided between the only two available flavors: soy garlic and spicy.

AllTasteSame Senior Correspondent Lily C:

As a fellow Californian that grew up with the original KFC finger lickin good fried chicken (go extra crispy!), I was quite intrigued by the non-batter coating advertised by the nouveau KFC. After quite an extensive taste test (3 large platters of drumstick/wing combos for 7 people), I have to say I have switched allegiances to the Korean variant. Why have I forsaken the Colonel do you ask? Simple. Chicken skin that is caramelized, spicy and crispy all at the same time. It is an explosion of flavor and fat in your mouth without the resulting greasy coating caused by most American FC. We found that the key to fully enjoying the nouveau KFC experience was ordering the wings, which have the perfect skin to meat ratio. The consensus among the group was that the drumsticks have simply too much meat. Although the drumstick did provide a perfect shell of caramelized skin that you could savor in 1 big bite.

Also note that spicy means asian spicy (not the wimpy spicy you get at Popeye's). Thus, make sure to have adequate beer on hand. Bon Chon has a variety of beers available in bottles, including some from the motherland, but only Miller Lite on tap. On the other hand, what is better than a table side mini-keg of Miller Lite and some KFC? If you are not a fan of gochujang (korean red chili paste), then by all means order up a plate of the soy garlic. It was quite delish in its own right. Or order a combo so you can switch between the two. But make sure to try the soy garlic first. Otherwise your taste buds may be deadened to its subtle goodness.

All in all Bon Chon is totally worth the drive to the burbs. The only thing that could improve its rating is a location in the District and/or delivery service. However, I doubt the chicken will be quite as amazing after a 30 minute drive. You really need to taste the skin as it comes straight from being twice fried in a vat of bubbling oil.

AllTasteSame Korean Specialist Anne S:

3 grains of rice (with a future 4 if some kinks are ironed out)

All right everyone. Keep your pants on. (Or in Jon's case, shirt). I can see I am going to have be the voice of reason in this lovefest that is Bon Chon. First, I fail to see how we are going to be able to operate much longer as a reputable food blog site if we rush out like a virgin-on-prom-night/convict-on-furlough and slap a 4.5 on the first korean-fried-chicken place that we see. What if the Mother of All Kfcs reveals itself to us -- tucked secretly away ... two strip malls down the turnpike? Shouldn't we at least do a suburban mano a mano comparison? Chicken Village?

Bon Chon reminded me of a Korean American college kid going through an identity crisis.

The log cabin church-pew interior was kitschy -- but their flatscreen tvs weren't streaming Korean soap operas or news. Just the US Open.

Only one Korean beer made it onto the menu... Cass and the draft beer was Miller Lite -- then with Coors Lite and some other imported bottle beers. I was happy to see the Coors lite which goes well with spicy, but.... are we going to be a mod sports bar or are we going to be a late night Korean joint? Old photos of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean on the wall were puzzling. Where were the action photos of the World Cup 2002 team and the Reds? Where is the hello kitty-on-acid decor? Where is the foozball machine? Seriously, the Lincoln Logs distracted me from my chicken. I was confused. It was a comfortable space but I wanted more. I think a different vibe, a small tweak on the menu and more attentive service would merit a 4.

For the service I have one word: if you are going to serve people flaming hot hair-singeing kochujang chicken, please have waitress on hand to answer cries for water. If you are serving finger food whose proprietary sauce claims to stay on the chicken and not your hand but does not really, please do not just give out one napkin per customer and, have waitress on hand to answer pleas for more napkins. If you are going to claim that twice fried chicken is low cal and healthy, at least put some effort into a couple of palate-cleansing complementary (as in taste not as in free) sides. People will be able to eat even more chicken if you do! Chopped cabbage with thousand island dressing is just lazy. When compared with the narcotic that is the chicken, it actually detracts. No points for the "kimchee" either. Even the lowliest Lotteria burger joint in Seoul had better pickled daikkon than this. It was a good idea to serve sweet vinegared cubed turnip kimchee to complement the chicken. The recipe, however, needs to be spot-checked by someone's grandma. Don't get me wrong, the service was fairly pleasant for a table of non-speakers... just a little thought in advance about what a customer might need and a few more check-ins during the meal is all that I would ask.

The chicken itself was fabu. Couldn't choose between the soy and spicy. Although we all agreed that one must eat the two in progression from mild to spicy. Also agree about the legs v. wings. Also agree about the delivery (not) and take-away (not). This must really be eaten hot and fresh. Which is why I think its important for that place to make the in-dining experience as nice as possible. I think the "first Korean sports bar" would be an exciting environment for this chicken and would encourage cross pollination among the fans of this chicken. Maybe it would even make it into the district. I never considered the combination of fried chicken and kochujang together but it is brilliant. Something in the preparation made it lighter and sit better in the tummy. In fact, the thing that made me ill was not the 27 pieces of chicken I ate that night but the 2 pound moutain of shaved ice with diabetes-inducing condensed milk and azuki bean syrup.

Kochu-Fried-Chicken is like a bright crisp 21st century version of the tired old fraternity buffalo wing and could easily kick the s--t out of K.F.C. in any throwdown. Bon Chon just needs to find the Korean version of mashed potatoes and 'slaw.
-Not Afraid to be a Grouch

AllTasteSame Senior Correspondent Lily C:

you are CRAZY.

(1) i only needed my 1 allotted napkin and wet wipe. not our fault that you are really really messy.

(2) food score should not be downgraded due to lack of korean soap operas on flat screen. perhaps there should be separate score for ambiance.

(3) agree sides suck but they are really irrelevant to chicken.

(4) i reserved a 1/2 grain of rice for a better KFC. but since there are only 2 in VA and the other one is reported to have even more sauce on its chicken, i doubt it will best bon chon.


AllTasteSame Korean Specialist Anne S:

heh heh. i think its good to get different perspectives. why don't you just put everyone's wish rating for fun and then let jon choose the actual rating?

if you are going to subcategorize restaurants and further breakdown rating crieria, i would agree to a 4 for this. but if you are telling me that you would give krispy kreme the same rating as chez panisse, then it is you my dear who are crazy.


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. . . After a short period of calm, rational debate that in no way degenerated into multiple flame wars, it was decided that in the interests of our loyal readers, we would cease our internal discussions in favor of posting this preliminary, non-consensus view - subject to further taste testing, of course. Enjoy, and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just Clucky

Two Two Chicken
Seoul
http://www.22chicken.net/

4 out of five grains of rice

- From Our Special Correspondent in Seoul

I have seen the future, and it clucks!

I am a believer, and the new faith is called Korean fried chicken. A growing awareness of this mythical winged beast in the States sparked my interest in taking a walk on the Korean side. I happened to be in Seoul for work and found myself without a business dinner. Now, for those that I have never met, be warned . . . . I am a real snob when it comes to my fried chicken. I have a 16-inch-wide cast iron pan for making my own and I take it very seriously. I will be forever trying to perfect the recipes from my old nanny Essie and my former neighbor Camille, who IMHO are the only real maestros of the pan-fried clucker. Neither of these lovely women uses batter or breading on their chicken (both dredge in flour), so my views toward kfc (no copyright infringement with lower case letters) are a bit biased.

So there I was in Seoul, and I decided to plunge in with both talons. (okay, okay, chickens don't have talons. Sue me.) The target of my sampling was a chain called Two Two Chicken(http://www.22chicken.net/). There are others in Korea I have heard of (including the now infamous Donkey Chicken - and my new favorite name, Born to be Chicken), but, having found the 22 by chance in Myong-dong near my hotel, I decided to take the plunge. It took a lap to remember exactly where it was (allstreetslooksame), but I was motivated.

The store is pretty small. Only five tables, and the front is occupied by the "kitchen", if you can call that cramped little space a kitchen. I decided on take-out after a 13-hour day of work, but I don't think the product suffered from shipping in a cardboard box with a vent top. I used my grunts-and-pointing to grab a chicken to go. It cost 12,000 won for a full fried chicken, cut up into pieces only a maternal hen could recognize (yes I ate the whole thing in one setting). To wash it down, on the way home I picked up an Asahi Super Dry Uber tall boy (750ML) at the 7-11 (Asia has its advantages over the States) and headed back quickstep to my hotel.

This chicken is unlike any fried chicken I've ever had. I am told it is twice cooked. It is pre-fried most of the way through and then fried a second time just before being served. This gives it a super crispy outer layer (not crunchy, a la KFC with lots of breading), but crispy with the outer layer slightly slick. However, let me be clear - this is not a greasy chicken. My hands had no residue after eating and the paper insert in the box was not see-through when it was pulled out.

But the taste is what will leave me craving chicken like Kim Jong Il craves plutonium. The spices are hard for me to pinpoint: There is a decidedly sweet taste (cinnamon), as well as what has to be anise, but there's also a great salt, sugar and pepper combination that really lets the taste of the chicken come through. Remember, spice is meant to enhance, not to overwhelm - and if Two Two chicken is any guide, they get that here. This is why this chicken sings.

If there is a knock on this chicken, it is the juiciness, or lack thereof. Some like a real juicy chicken. US chickens are fatter and plumper, a la Barry Bonds, than the Korean versions. Now 22 is an all natural joint and as a result, the chickens will seem a little smaller and taste a little drier than their US cousins. For me this isn't a problem, as I like my chicken a little drier. I cook mine a few minutes longer than the recipe says, and I always shy away from the KFC-style, water-injected versions of fried chicken.

If you're averse to really dry chicken, take heart. The take-out comes with a small cup of Korean chile and garlic paste. Dipping sauces may get a good name. If McD's served this stuff along with McNuggets, they might be edible (ok, they will NEVER be edible), but the tangy, spicy mixture leaves a great tingle on the tongue. Served in-store, the chicken can be ordered smothered in the stuff, but not sure I am ready for that.

And now here I sit, thinking I might have a problem. I just finished 20 minutes ago and am already craving more. I devoured this bird in about seven minutes, locked in my hotel room at 9:30 at night. No niceties - I ate the fated fryer over the bag I carried it home in (visions of George Costanza eating an entire block of cheese with his shirt off come to mind). But it was so good, I don't think I care. This chicken is worth some mild personal debasing. It is tasty, crisp and delicious. I plan on continuing my personal taste comparison on future trips. I might even plan a few extra trips for the chicken alone. They say there is no conviction like that of the newly converted . . . .Well fit me for my kfc habit and find me a rosary made out of chicken bones, because I am in.

UPDATE-I was just told they deliver 24/7. We may have a five rice grain score coming.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Yakyu and Yakitori

Oh! Taisho
9 St. Marks Place (between 2nd and 3rd)
New York, NY
212-673-1300

Baseball and Japan seem to be the themes of this trip. So, naturally, after watching the Yankees skewer Detroit at Yankee Stadium, we opted for more skewers, this time with grilled meat on them: yakitori. At Jayan's suggestion, we headed to yakitori joint Oh! Taisho in New York's Harajuku-lite - St. Mark's Place, dotted with several great late-night Japanese eateries and more hip young Asian kids than you can shake a chocolate-covered Pocky at.

We sat and were presented with a huge menu of options, all of which sounded totally appetizing - even the motsu ("beef guts") and yotsumi ("chicken chunck.") Ultimately, the prospect of so many things wrapped in bacon drove us a little crazy, and we ended up with a giant platter of skewers, along with some shrimp gyoza and salmon ochazuke. Ochazuke is rice served in a bowl of tea, usually with some other ingredient; this one was refreshing and light and served as a great palate teaser for the grilled goodness to come. The shrimp gyoza were serviceable, but nothing really to write home about. But the yakitori! Tired of the succulent, fat-basted enoki mushrooms enveloped in a cozy ring of bacon? How about some succulent, fat-basted asparagus enveloped in a cozy ring of . . . bacon? It turns out, as we really had long suspected but never definitively proved, that everything tastes better when wrapped in bacon. Even seafood - we went for the bacon-wrapped scallops as well (too late to try to keep kosher anyway). We did tentatively venture outside our bacon zone of comfort, dipping into some tasty kimo, or chicken livers (like buttah), and the aforementioned chicken chunck. Keeping in mind the FDA food pyramid, we even had some vegetables: grilled negi, or scallions, were the perfect counterpoint to all the meat.

In the end, we were let down by our own stomachs, which, having ingested several Nathan's hot dogs at the game a few hours earlier, finally cried uncle at the umpteenth skewer. But there were so many great options left to try, like the ika yaki (whole grilled cuttlefish), the ume sasami and sasami mentai (chicken w/ plum paste and chicken with spicy cod roe), that we're just going to have to go back - preferably after watching Hideki Matsui clobber another postseason contender. Turns out baseball (yakyu) and yakitori go perfectly together . . . something the Japanese have long figured out.

Friday, August 17, 2007

GAMBATTE!!!

The City That Always Eats
Go Japanese Restaurant
30 St. Marks Place
New York, NY

4 out of 5 Grains of Rice

NY NY. Are there any more appetizing initials anywhere? The city is a constant food festival, open at all hours and offering every possible cuisine from around the world. But perhaps no cuisine is better represented in NY than Asian cuisine. Other than hopping a 13 hour flight – and even then many people will tell you the food is better in NY than, say, Seoul – NY is THE place go get your fill of the hot, sour, salty sweet that is Asian food.

Last night was Japanese – and we are not talking your kimono-wearing, memoirs-of-a Geisha Japan but real life, modern day Japan. Osaka style. A few blocks from my brother’s place on St. Marks’ Place (30 St. Marks to be exact) is a place called Go Japanese. And you should take their advice and GO. NOW!!

The place hit my heart strings right away because the first waiter we saw had on a Posada (#20) shirt and they had the Yankee game on over the small sushi bar. After just having watched the No Reservations on Osaka food, this could not have been better planned. While not officially a baseball bar, there are Hideki Matsui photos up all over the place and in his honor, today’s post is baseball themed.

The outside of the place looks like it was built by habitat for humanity rejects and serves as an extension of the kitchen. This is where they have the grill and fryers so that they don’t smoke the customers out of the joint. Inside, be warned. This place is no museum with paper screens or bare feet. Bustling, bare brick walls and beat up wood tables, with all Japanese staff and they are all business . . . . . just tell me what you want to eat and drink.

We were drawn there by my brother’s interest in the deep friend octopus balls, but we found more. Much, much more.

Deciding took some time. You get three menus including the main menu, the daily sushi specials and the daily chef specials. We just selected a bunch and away we went.

For a snack, we got the dried baby sardine crackers (Tatami Iwashi). Expecting a kind of canapé, we got the lightest and crispest of crackers made from dried baby sardines. Literally like tatami mats made from little fried fish. Very crisp and salty, served with a side of spicy mayonnaise – this is like the most perfect beer snack ever. Too few per plate, but really got the taste buds primed, which after all is what an appetizer is for, right? A solid double from the lead off hitter.

Then came the heart of the line up – takoyaki or fried octopus balls. After enduring my brother’s obligatory jokes about how the male octopi have children without their balls, we got down to eating. About the size of those big jaw breakers you used to buy for 25 cents (and smaller than a golf ball), these little bite sized balls of heaven were made with very light breading, chopped octopus and seasonings. They were served six to a plate piping hot and covered with bonito flakes and ponzu sauce. Salty and sweet, very light and with a light chewiness from the octopus. Just fantastic. So good, we ordered a second plate. A two-run homer from the # 2 hitter. Score – 2-0.

Then we had the broiled salmon skin salad. This was a mixture of thinly sliced and broiled salmon skin with green onions and vinegar dressing. The skin was still warm and the richness of the salmon fat and the tart vinegar made this dish a winner. A triple.

A little less fabulous, but still delicious, was the broiled eel in vinegar. Served with a healthy helping of chopped seaweed and garlic sprouts, the ell was a little too soft from the vinegar dressing and the flavors a little muted for my taste. Eel should be a richer, luxurious taste and this one fell just a little off. A weak single, with an RBI. 3-0

Stepping back up to their A game, Go then delivered the broiled black cod with fresh miso. This dish was terrific. Just opaque, the cod was rich and tasty, and served with the fresh miso just melted in your mouth. Nobu is supposed to make the same dish, but hard to imagine it much better. A double up the gap, scoring the runner from first – 4-0

Our next dish came from the “yes, the Japanese will cook and eat just about anything” folder and, as usual, it tasted better than it sounded. Deep fried giant clam tendon fried in butter. This was a tasty dish, even if not to my liking. Very rich butter taste and the tendon was a mixture of soft and chewy. I have trouble with the very chewy foods, but this was very tasty. Sharp single to right field, another runs scores – 5-0.

Needing a few more items to top us off, we went for one of the okonomiyaki dishes. Wanting to avoid any more REALLY chewy items, we got the Dynamite-yaki with kim chi. As usual, this Osaka dish came covered in mayonnaise and sweet sauce, but was well cooked and with a really nice bite from the spicy kim chi. Another double, the flood gates are really open and the Yanks lead 6-0.

Last dish was a straight ahead ramen. The noodles were cooked very al dente, and the broth was a good mixture of rich and salty. The broth was more rich than salty, and very solid. A little thin on the toppings (bamboo, green onions and some fish cakes). Nothing to go gaga over, but then again, it is not really an Osaka specialty (stay tuned for our all-ramen post from later today). Another sharp single. Time for a pitching change and a word from our sponsor.

By now we were stuffed, and it was all we could do to head to Viniero’s for a mini cannoli in honor of the late great Phil Rizutto who passed earlier this week. We miss you, you big huckleberry.

Monday, August 13, 2007

“I know of a place in. . . . .”

“I know of a place in Herndon?” Few statements set my heart racing like these seven little words. We’ve all heard it before. You’ll be talking to a group of friend about some great Asian food you’ve had, and invariably someone chimes in with a statement like “I have a friend who goes to this great little dim sum place in Herndon. I’ve never been, but he says it’s the best. I’ll get the name for you.” Of course, you almost never hear from this person again and in the back of your mind, you are always left dreaming about that little hidden gem that no one but you and native eaters know about. It’s like the fish that got away, or the girl you almost hooked up with in college that is a lot prettier in your memory than she probably ever was in real life.

The hidden gem is in part what keeps Asian foodies like us going. We are all seeking that little no-name, strip mall eatery where the food is all hand made, authentic and worth driving for an hour for 9and waiting another hour for the table). It’s the Holy Grail for the Asian foodie. Whether it was the little Vietnamese Pho place in San Jose we found in June, the Ramen place we stumbled in a few days later, or the fried soup dumpling we are trying next weekend in Queens, there is no greater satisfaction than seeking and (hopefully) finding that great little hole in the wall that saves you the effort of going to Vietnam or Shanghai because the food is just as good (ok, almost) at the little place you’ve found.

These are the places we want to find, but we need help. I am already lined up to hit a new place in Rockville offered by one of my co-workers (stay tuned for more posts). But we need to hear more. So please share your rumors, suggestions, foodie gems so we can check ‘em out. The car is gassed up and I am starving.

Unexpected Asian

Unexpected Asian

2 out of 5 grains of rice

One of the great things about Asian cooking is that you can find it anywhere (almost). After spending a weekend on Mackinac Island (which as far as we can tell has NO Asian food at all – would-be restaurateurs be advised), my wife and I found ourselves hungry during a short stopover at the Detroit Airport. Given the large number of flights from Detroit to Asia, including Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, we weren’t entirely surprised to come across more than your average American fast food.

Around Gate A-25, we found one of the now relatively common Japanese airport eateries – this one named Sora. Now let’s be clear, despite the pan-Asian wait staff and the sushi bar found upon entering, we were not expecting authentic Japanese cuisine, and were not greeted by the common Japanese restaurant welcome “ ”. But we did find a very full menu of sushi, sashimi and more complete dishes like Chirashi (assorted sushi over rice) and hot dishes ranging from udon and ramen noodles to tonkastu (deep fried pock cutlet).

Never one to turn down a chance at Japanese noodles, we each had a bowl – I ordered a Katsune Udon (wheat noodles with sweetened and deep fried tofu) and my wife a bowl of Gyoza Ramen (fried noodles with pork dumplings). (I am on a heavy udon kick after seeing the Japanese movie Udon on a flight from Asia recently). There were other soup options, including some with tempura (lightly breaded and deep fried) shrimp and other empting options. But we had only 25 minutes and wanted to keep it simple.

Both were surprisingly good. The udon had a little texture to them, and were topped with both tofu as well as some green onion and fish cake. Kastune means fox in Japanese and the color of the fried tofu is supposed to resemble the color of a wild fox. The fried tofu was right on, slightly sweetened with sugar, but with a silky texture that holds together in the soup. The broth (a key part in any of the Japanese soups) was also pretty good, although I would have preferred a slightly more pronounced bonito or fish flavor. The ramen noodles were a little tougher than I care for, and the broth had a slightly unusual, almost artificial flavor I could not quite place – maybe a flavor enhancer or bouillon additive. But the gyoza were good and the soup over all was pretty satisfying – which after all is what you want in all meals and in soup in particular.

In the end, both were much better than I would ever expect to find in an airport and would be decent in most downtown areas in the US. Now maybe we were just suffering from withdrawals, not having had Asian food for perhaps 4 whole days, but we were both pretty happy with the find. I am not going to book any flights through Detroit just to go back (unlike what I would do to get back to the Sushi bar I found at Narita last year) but won’t object to the next little layover I might find myself scheduled for in Michigan.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Joe's Noodle House - mmmmm, Chinese

Joe’s Noodle House
1488-C Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD

3 out of 5 Rice Grains

So while shopping up in Rockville, my wife spied a non-descript building on the east side of Rockville pike and said – “hey, let’s try that on the way home.” Turns out she is like a rain man for Asian food (definately good asian, definately). This place was good. VERY good. It’s all linoleum and mirrors – very 70s strip mall décor and you order at the front counter. We also noticed the rug had seen much better days, but since when has decor EVER been a key to good Asian dining. If you focus on the food and not the flooor, things get good quickly. There are lots of daily specials (most, but fortunately not all with Tripe) and a solid variety of options. You could come back 20 times and not repeat, and it seems from first glace that all of the food would be good to very good.

For starters, we had the tofu with chile paste which comes cold which helps mute the spice but very flavorful. It would be better if it warmed up a bit, but overall not bad (and even better the next day as leftovers). We also had the pan-fried guo-tie(dumplings) which were homemade and pretty good, if a tad on the dry side. The spicy noodles were also very good, although they appeared to be pre-made pasta but the red chile sauce was really good. The star of the menu was the sliced and stir-fried rice cake. Stir-fried with chicken and mushrooms – very tasty. We’ll be back for the food and won’t mind about the decor.