Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just Clucky

Two Two Chicken

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( 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.