Seoul Food: Touring Koreatown With an Expert

Writer John T. Edge sinks his teeth into Korean fried chicken.

 

“Fried chicken has a primal appeal,” says John T. Edge, one of the country’s foremost Southern food writers, as we hurtle downtown on the C train in pursuit of poultry—specifically the kind fried Koreanstyle. “We eat it,” he adds, “like Homo sapiens have done for eons.”

Such philosophical insights don’t always arrive with a box of soygarlic glazed drumsticks from Bon Bon, one of many Seoul-based (or Seoul-inspired) fried chicken chains to roost on our shores in recent years.

But if anyone could earn a PhD in fried chicken studies it’s Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Mississippi, an organization that sees grits, biscuits and, yes, fried chicken as subjects worthy of serious cultural analysis. The alliance hosts symposiums, tours and conferences (when it’s not producing documentaries, books and oral histories on whether olives belong in pimento cheese) and Edge serves as the veritable dean of Southern cuisine. The man has literally spent a lifetime discussing battered and fried fowl.

But Edge—who was a contributing editor at Gourmet and is a frequent columnist for the Oxford American and the New York Times— isn’t only concerned with stuff served south of the Mason-Dixon. He’s written a series of books on how America eats, and in 2002 he crisscrossed the country—from meat-and-three joints of Mississippi to Dominican diners in Harlem—in search of beautiful birds for Fried Chicken: An American Story.

Even then, his thesis was almost heretic for a Southerner: that fried chicken is actually a multi-multicultural phenomenon. Edge took offense at the concept the Southern food writer John Villas had put forth in the book American Taste: “To know about fried chicken, you have to have been weaned on it and reared on it in the South. Period.” In his book, Edge countered: “Fried chicken is not distinctly Southern. It may not be even distinctly American. If fried chicken is American, then it denotes an American identity that accommodates cooks from a plethora of traditions.”

It was to Manhattan that Edge had come to suss out one such tradition from East Asia: the Korean fried chicken (we’re fond of calling them “KFC”) outfits like Bon Bon that proliferate on Seoul street corners just like pizza parlors do in Midtown.

Most Korean corner chicken joints use a technique Chinese chefs call “paper fried, ” which renders out the subcutaneous fat until the skin is nearly transparent, then follow a two-step process where thinly floured and breaded pieces—usually cute little drumsticks and wings, since Korean birds are smaller than ours— are fried twice. A thin bath of sauce (sometimes hot, always sweet and red) gives the exceedingly crispy skin a blanket of flavor.

Edge encountered this incarnation’s appeal a few years ago in Atlanta: With quiet reverence he recalls his first taste of KFC—the genesis of this quest, perhaps—in a far-flung neighborhood of that New South capitol. The bird—juicy, well-seasoned and expertly fried—was cooked whole, then cut up for the table. “That’s what God intended,” says Edge with approval. “It’s how we know God is Korean.”

There were fresh green onions, he recalls, a pink sauce “like McDonald’s,” and a little bowl of salt and pepper that they dipped the chicken into before each bite.

The delivery is different at Bon Bon (98 Chambers Street at Church Street), the first and only non-Koreatown stop on our tour. It takes its culinary cues and its colorful wall hues from Kyochon, the revered Korean chain that just opened a branch near Broadway in Koreatown. Both serve crackly, thin-skinned, nearly greaseless fried wings and drummettes lightly dressed with a spicy or soy-garlic sauce and very little else beyond the ubiquitous bowl of pickled daikon radish.

When, after 15 minutes, our fried-to-order drums and wings arrive, their skin reminds Edge of the famous fried birds at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a place just as well-known for its location in a tumbledown house in a not-so-great neighborhood in New Orleans. “An impressive crust,” says Edge. If a bite of the Southern standard is all about the crags of the thick crust and the grease that drips down your chin, Bon Bon’s birds are beloved for their elegance: They deliver a serious crunch in a neat package—no finger licking needed.

There’s plenty of poultry ahead of us—and unlike most other city chicken shacks, Bon Bon doesn’t serve beer—so we head uptown to the delicious stretch of 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway also known as Korea Way. Home to neon-lit Korean businesses (the area got its start a few decades back with a bookstore and a handful of restaurants) K-Town might be only a few blocks, but it’s no slouch when it comes to summoning up a taste of Seoul, especially at night: Restaurants serving stone bowls of sizzling rice called bi bim bap, the dumplings called mandoo and spicy tofu stews are packed, while neon-lit karaoke bars with sochu specials spring to life in almost every available space.

Baden Baden is one such sing-along establishment, known as much for its pitchers of watery beer and party scene as for its fried chicken. The somewhat German-styled bar (the Korean chef at the stoves once cooked in the Black Forest city for which it’s named) sits on the second floor of an office building at 28 West 32nd Street, hidden up a sticky stairwell. In the dimly lit, woodpaneled space, birds are cooked whole and served cut up on a platter with French fries and whole cloves of garlic. (Instead of a choice of sauce, you get squeeze bottles of ketchup and hot sauce, which nearby tables of beer-buzzed Koreans apply liberally.) Edge is fascinated by our waiter’s description of the cooking process: The birds are rotisseried, then quickly fried.

Sadly, all that cooking yields dry meat: “This is not fried chicken,” Edge realizes: “It’s a cook’s trick to crisp the skin.” Still it’s not a bad time, thanks to the beer and the silly bar scene, something akin to a T.G.I. Friday’s, Korea-style.

The birds are really worth the buzz at our next stop, a funky, basement place on the same block called K-Town Chicken and Hof at 34 West 32nd Street near Broadway. (Here the main artistic feature is the wall-size screen of Korean karaoke-ready music videos.) The restaurant follows Baden Baden’s nod to Germany with the funny name, chilled cheap mugs of beer—happy hour Coors Lights are $3.50—and whole fried chickens. But happily it leaves the rotisserie shtick behind.

When the food arrives—we chose the modumyang platter of chicken three ways: one Southern fried, one dipped in sweet sauce and one done spicy—Edge is pleased. There’s a crispy cragginess to the Southern-style pile, plus a little bowl of that salt-and-pepper mix he fell for in Atlanta and even a pile of shredded iceberg lettuce, artfully bedecked with, yes, the pink McDonald’s-style sauce. We prefer the spicy to the ultra-sweet—whose flavor evokes Heinz—and agree this is the best of the birds thus far.

Still, our last stop beckons, its reputation high. Yet another upstairs eatery, this one’s a zany modern space recently rechristened Mad for Chicken from the original chain name Bon Chon, which was perhaps a bit too close for comfort to Bon Bon. (Even more confusingly, the receipt reads R Music Bistro Bar.)

True to its (new) name, Mad for Chicken (314 Fifth Avenue at 32nd Street) offers all the gimmicks: popcorn while you wait, Changstyle soft-serve ice cream, little tin pails for bones, and beer in teetering, refrigerated, lavalamp- style illuminated towers—the first of their kind in the city, our waiter, Agyong, tells us proudly. (Ours leaked.)

We order a bucket of spicy wings and drumsticks, and it arrives with a thin, crispy skin, a nearly greaseless crunch and a pleasant heat that Edge notes in approval. If not as similar to that Atlanta memory as the Hof, it’s easy to eat, even after fried chicken round four.

And as we stumble down the stairs from Mad for Chicken, woozy more from the fat and salt than from our tower of beer, we ponder the addictive appeal of our so many meals. Our soy-garlic, sesame-seeded drummettes may have come from a completely different continent than the napkin-staining Crisco-soaked thighs Edge orders up back in Mississippi, but they hit the same nerve with those who love them. Whether your fried chicken comes with a side of karaoke and a lava lamp or biscuits and collards, it’s still down-home comfort food: Soul and Seoul soothing in it’s own crispy, crunchy way.

And just like at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, one state over from Edge in Louisiana, KFC comfort also comes from the sense of place. Spicy-sweet birds are crackly good, in other words, but it’s often the over-the-top quirky cool of the places that’ll have you urging your friends to come with you to try them. “That brings it full circle,” says Edge. “Cause anyplace in the South, you’re going for the place as much as the food.” Clearly, that holds true in K-Town, too.

Originally from Raleigh, N.C., Rachel Wharton is Edible Manhattan’s deputy editor. Her favorite fried chicken is her father’s, though the mojomarinated stuff they produce in Dominican joints uptown works nicely in a pinch.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.