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)

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 . . .


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.


. . . 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.