Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities (and Chickens)

If you have been to the blog before (and if you have not, welcome), you’ll know that there has been a real bit of fevered excitement over the importation of Korean Fried Chicken (kfc) to the United States. This worthy addition to the American chicken scene has made a big splash in foodie circles in NY and has even filtered down to our little food backwater of Washington DC.

The DC advisory crew for AllTasteSame decided to check it out for themselves a few weeks ago, and while I was away they all clearly had a great time and enjoyed some fiiiiiiine chicken. While there were some disagreements) over final rating and issues like service, all agreed that it was a chicken to be dreamt of and eaten often.

Not to be outdone by the DC-based contingent, I happened to be in Seoul at the same time for work and decided to sample some of the original product personally.

But I was curious - how did the two chickens compare? From photos on the web, it was obvious that there were differences, but one wing is worth a thousand photos (or something like that) so a small group and I ventured back to the wilds of Annondale, VA to try it for myself at Bon Chon last weekend.

OK, let me be crystal clear – THIS CHICKEN KICKS ASS. Bon Chon is a strip mall eatery with tinted windows and an interesting, cultureless vibe indoors. It is roomy, dark, and 90% Korean inhabited. Big screen TVs on the wall, music, etc. There is a big bar (and even bigger beers – they serve mini-kegs right at your table) and it was clear that people did not come for the ambiance, they came for the food.

So the five of us grabbed a table and got our menus. We knew we were getting chicken, but decided to share a dish of dok bok gi (tube shaped rice cakes served in chili sauce) just to get our taste buds running. This delicious snack is everywhere on the street in Seoul and the stuff at Bon Chon is good, although I like my Seoul street version better (a bit more bite and heat and no fish balls, etc).

But we quickly moved to the main event. We ordered a plate of the soy and garlic chicken and a plate of the spicy. Both came out in about 30 minutes. The plates contain only drumsticks and wings, and the chicken itself comes out glistening and piping hot. But it was immediately clear that my photo analysis was right – the chicken at Bon Chon is different than the Korean version I had at 22Chicken in Seoul.

The secret to kfc is that it is cooked twice. The chicken is first dredged in fine flour before frying. This contrasts with most American or southern style fried chicken which is dipped either in batter or layered in egg and then flour before frying to make a crunchy coating. It does, but this system also picks up a lot of oil and can be greasy (good, but greasy). For kfc, once the chicken is dredged and then patted off so only a little flour remains, it is then fried at a relatively low temperature for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, the chicken is taken out of the oil and put onto a rack to cool, after which it goes back into higher temp oil to finish. This process allows the chicken to cook through without burning, and also allows for a crisper, less greasy chicken.

The 22chicken follows this recipe, as far as I can guess. It is seasoned with salt and pepper before and after frying It appears that Bon Chon follows this recipe but after the chicken cools, it is then hit with its flavor sauce (either soy and garlic or spicy) and then put back into the oil. The flour that has been fried onto the chicken absorbs the sauce, and then it gets fried on to a glorious crunchy finish.

Herein lies the difference. The 22Chicken is very crisp and has a wonderful salty taste. It is not greasy at all, and the meat is well cooked and delicious. The Bon Chon chicken, by contrast, is more crunchy than crisp. The flour has a crunch to it because it has puffed up a bit with sauce before second frying. The soy and garlic is mouthwatering (I can testify as I am salivating just writing this review) and the spicy wings make your mouth and lips sizzle. The heat does not hit you all at once, but it builds and leaves you hot, happy and hungry for more. Also, with 22Chicken, you get the whole chicken. With Bon Chon, you get sticks and wings – no thighs or breast. Not sure where the rest of the chicken went, but too busy eating at the time to care.

The bottom line is that both chickens are damn tasty and any food oriented human would easily dish out three times what they are charging for their regular fix (shhhhhhh, don’t tell them). The kfc method makes for a very tasty, tender chicken that is moist, but not watery (like the official KFC). I personally think the service and environment at Bon Chon was perfect for what it was – a fried chicken joint. The beer was cold and delicious (although I’d prefer a better variety than Miller Lite) but it works. 22Chicken is really a hole in the wall take out joint with a few tables. But the chicken speaks for itself, and man does it say good. I’ll be going back to Bon Chon soon, and might even take the time to drop my bags off at the hotel before heading to 22 on my nest trip to Korea.

Surely, “the best of times. . . . AND CHICKENS.”