O.C. Chow: The Changing Face of Chicken, Korean + American

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12840 Beach Blvd., Stanton, CA 90680
Web: Kyochon
Phone: 714.891.2449
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"Thanks to texture, Kyochon has managed to take the wing in a new direction, rather than just mixing up another barbecue or modestly different 'non-traditional' spicy sauce."

Buffalonians take for granted their status as originators and purveyors of a globally-recognized chicken dish - the "Buffalo Wing," as it's now commonly called - and though there are surely thousands of other ways to eat chicken in Western New York, none is more popular than the wing. Somewhat amazingly, the United States is in the midst of a growing national love affair with the wing right now: chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings are climbing in numbers around the country, and new places are opening up from coast to coast; it sometimes seems like locally well-known Buffalo restaurants are the only ones who aren't getting in on the national action. Yet there are a couple of other chicken restaurants that have become increasingly big deals in recent times, most interestingly one that - like the new frozen yogurt boom that has been rocking California and New York City for a few years now - comes from Korean entrepreneurs. As with frozen yogurt, which became a national hit years ago, collapsed under waning public interest, then resurged thanks to Korean-built chains such as Red Mango, Pinkberry, and Yogurtland, a new group of Korean wing vendors think they've perfected a new recipe for fried chicken. Even as long-time fans of Buffalo's wings, we're willing to admit that they have a worthwhile alternative on their hands, and one that Western New Yorkers should learn from.

Profiled by the New York Times and L.A. Times amongst many others, Kyochon claims to be the Anchor Bar of Korean-style fried chicken, a variation on Kentucky Fried Chicken and Buffalo-style wings that can best be understood as a fusion of the two forms. Like KFC, Kyochon will fry any part of the chicken, but they sell lots of smaller wings and "sticks," which have been cooked using a special two-stage process that initially transforms the fatty skin to an utterly crispy but paper-thin shell, then cooks the inner chicken meat to a tender, moist contrast. The chicken is then tossed in one of two sauces, the first a lightly sweet garlic soy that leaves the wings looking golden and untouched, yet tasting a little like candy, while the other is a stronger, spicy soy ("hot sweet sauce") that is closer in look and texture to a glaze, evoking chili and pepper flavors with every bite. Even if you like intense Buffalo-style sauces as much as we do, it's impossible to ignore how fun and tasty these are, as well. We ordered 10 of the wings for $10, split half sweet and half spicy; the containers actually contained 14 wings, though they were considerably smaller than typical wings in Buffalo.

The key to the Korean take on wings is texture. Very, very few places in Western New York manage to hit a similar balance of crispy outside and moist inside - East Aurora's Bar Bill is one, but even so, its wings are heavier in weight and crunch. Kyochon's wings are not only smaller, but also lighter, both in weight and initial impact, almost like miniature, candied snacks. That's until the sweet, spicy glaze of the hotter ones has some time to build up; it starts as a legitimate little burn, and continues to taste good as it gathers strength, with a peppery afterglow persisting in the mouth long after the wings have disappeared. On power of sauce alone, we'd go with a great traditional Buffalo sauce any day, but this particular version is a compelling alternative. Additionally, since there's no thick, overbearing batter here, you get most of the crunch of a KFC wing without all of the breading and extra calories.

Why should anyone in Western New York care? Because Kyochon - and certain of its competitors - have finally managed to take the wing in a new direction, rather than just mixing up yet another barbecue or modestly different "non-traditional" spicy sauce with whatever ingredients sounded interesting on a given day. Moreover, the key to this particular recipe is in serving the wings fresh, hot, and crispy, rather than soggy, which made far too many of the wings at this year's National Buffalo Wing Festival seem forgettable. Quality isn't just given lip service here; it's the key to making these wings work. Kyochon's focus on impressing with texture first and flavor second is rightfully winning fans both here and abroad; Buffalo wing places might find that experimenting with their own cooking processes to yield crispier or otherwise more interesting results might spark some new interest... and hopefully give this growing international trend a new twist. Combining the crispiness of these Korean versions with a strong traditional Buffalo wing sauce could make someone very successful.

Kyochon Chicken on Urbanspoon

Updated! We also took the opportunity to visit Bonchon Chicken (3407 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90020, 213.487.7878), Kyochon's local rival - and one that was supposed to be the Duff's (read: recipe perfected) to the Anchor Bar-like Kyochon. What we discovered was a somewhat more complex distinction: Kyochon is, as noted above, a very good restaurant for wings, while Bonchon is more of a Kentucky Fried Chicken alternative: it serves large drumsticks and wings - both considerably bigger than Kyochon's - in the same two sauce variations, one light and sweet, the other sweet and spicy. Orders take 25 minutes to cook, and are cooked to order; we ordered a "Large Combo" of roughly 15 full-sized drumsticks and wings for $17, half sweet, half spicy.

Here, the skin is thicker - much thicker, and likely battered a bit - while the wings are heavier, and the taste oilier, actually distracting a bit from the sauces. Though the meat was just as tender as at Kyochon, and enough to make one of us initially describe the chicken as the best we'd ever had, we didn't like the flavors quite as much here, particularly Bonchon's spicy sauce, which was similar to Kyochon's but with less kick and persistence. As the meat cooled a little, the oil became too much for us to take, which led us to quite uncharacteristically left two pieces uneaten. If we were only able to go back to one of these chains, we'd pick Kyochon, which thanks to its chicken's delicacy seems like more of an innovation over traditional wings, but the prices and pieces of chicken were bigger at Bonchon. Both places deserve their fans.

Bonchon Chicken on Urbanspoon

Apart from wings, we're not generally huge fans of chicken, but there's one restaurant chain that has for years been one of our favorites for chicken sandwiches: Chick-fil-A (13490 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, CA 92602, 714.730.9100). As suggested by its slogan, "We didn't invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich," company founder S. Truett Cathy has been credited with inventing the chicken sandwich, primarily served by Chick-fil-A as a breaded cutlet on a bun with coin-sliced sour pickles, but also in less noteworthy grilled variations, and these days with nugget and strip-like tender variations as well. Burgers aren't part of the menu; the company's ads have often comically used cows holding misspelled "Eat More Chicken" signs as a not-so-subtle joke that the chain is helping those burgers to remain intact.

Very Southern - and Southern Baptist - in its operations, the Georgia-based Chick-fil-A prominently serves delicious freshly squeezed lemonade as one of its distinctive drink offerings, along with fresh, thick milkshakes, and for decades has refused to open its stores on Sundays for religious reasons. The latter fact alone makes Chick-fil-A restaurants stand apart from their numerous fast food competitors in California, many of which remain open seven days a week and late into the night to accommodate as many customers as possible. Even so, Chick-fil-A now has over 1,400 shops in 38 states and Washington, D.C., and people who move from places where its sandwiches are available often are the biggest agitators to get new locations to open wherever they live.

What's interesting about the original Chick-fil-A sandwich is that it's pressure-cooked with peanut oil rather than deep-fried as one might expect from its appearance, yielding breading that's a little more soft and moist than the typical Burger King or other fast food fried chicken sandwich; the chicken is invariably, hot, moist and, in our experience, both lean and very tasty. The nuggets and tenders always appear to be made from the same pieces of breast meat as the sandwiches, only cut into long strips or smaller chunks as preferred by the customer; a sweet barbecue sauce is offered for dipping. Fries are of the waffle/criss-cut variety, cooked in the same peanut oil, and generally pretty good, too.

Are Chick-fil-A's sandwiches incredible? No. They're just very good, nicely balancing high-quality breast meat with the soft breading and peanut oil pressure cooking method, which is different from many competitors; for some people - particularly families - these differences make the sandwiches addictive enough to inspire several visits a month. We used to be that devoted when we lived nearby, and we do miss having a Chick-fil-A within driving distance, but after stopping by one of our former favorite locations on this visit, we weren't quite as wowed as we used to be. Other chains, including Burger King, Arby's, and Wendy's, have made major strides in chicken preparation and quality in recent years, leaving us to wonder whether the chicken-heavy Chick-fil-A is still enough of a draw for fans to want it anyway.

Chick-Fil-a on Urbanspoon

If you're familiar with any of these chains, we'd like to know what you think; post your comments below.

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