The thing is, they're not exaggerating that much. Bonchon's fried chicken is almost that good.
Bonchon, which means "hometown" in Korean, started in Busan, South Korea, in 2002. The concept quickly took roost across South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, making its way to the United States by 2006. Los Altos resident Albert Tseng opened the first Northern California Bonchon in Sunnyvale in 2010, followed four years later by a South San Francisco location. His brightly lit, TV-adorned Bonchon on Mountain View's Castro Street opened last summer.
Tseng is contemplating opening more Bonchons in the Bay Area and said he is looking at Milpitas, Cupertino and San Jose as likely locations.
Tseng had a fateful encounter with Bonchon during a visit to New York City about 10 years ago. His first taste of the double-fried wings was a "game changer," he said. "I returned home after my trip and could not stop thinking about that fried chicken."
So, what is it about Bonchon's fried chicken that must have Colonel Sanders' bow tie in a serious twist?
At once sweet, savory, spicy, garlicky, salty, tangy, crunchy and moist, Bonchon chicken is fried twice, with a quick "air dry" between visits to the fryer, a process that gives the chicken a delightfully crispy outer shell, almost as if it has been lightly candied. A glaze of soy, garlic, brown sugar and ginger is hand-brushed onto each piece. You can choose spicy — a tongue-searing 8.5 on the heat scale — or the milder soy-garlic sauce. Tseng buys his chicken from Pitman Family Farms, purveyors of the Mary's Organic brand.
On our first visit, we went for a medium combo (10 wings and five drumsticks, $23.95). Our helpful server suggested we get half of the order spicy and half soy-garlic. Go for the wings or drums; on a second visit, I found the strips to be slightly on the dry side.
A small bowl of palate-cleansing cubes of crisp daikon radish accompanies each order. Additional sides include coleslaw, kimchi coleslaw, kimchi and steamed rice.
Unfortunately, the rest of Bonchon's Korean-Asian fusion menu did not have me or my dining companions "shouting from the rooftops." The portions are generous, service is exceptionally friendly and prices are right — what you would expect from a globally successful chain — but nothing we tried over two visits came close to the signature fried chicken.
A bibimbap bowl ($12.95-$14.95) is Korea's national comfort food: steamed white rice and vegetables topped with an egg and your choice of meat, served in what is supposed to be a "sizzling" stone bowl. Our bowl wasn't hot enough, so the rice at the bottom did not crisp up as has been my experience in other Korean restaurants. The resulting mound of rice and veggies was a little goopy, but the gochujang (chili paste) and sesame oil delivered flavor and heat.
The Korean tacos ($10.95 for three) totally missed the fusion mark. Cubes of dry chicken, lettuce, buttermilk ranch dressing and spicy mayo were layered into flour tortillas, resulting in a random mix of uncomplimentary flavors and textures — serious Korean-Mexican culture clash. The tacos might have been more appealing with the bulgogi (marinated grilled beef) instead of chicken.
A sesame ginger salad ($8.95) was enough for two people. The lettuce was fresh and tossed with onions, red peppers and a tangy sesame-ginger dressing.
The salmon avocado ball ($10.95) was another Asian fusion-misstep. Crab meat, cucumber, rice and roe were mounded into a little dome and topped with seared strips of salmon, spicy mayo, unagi sauce and tempura bits. There was no avocado to be found in our order. The outside of the ball was warm and the inside was as cold as Pyeongchang in winter. We sent it back.
I'm not sure what to say about the bull dak ($14.95). The menu described a spicy chicken stir-fry with rice cakes, mozzarella and steamed vegetables. Bull dak translates as "fire chicken," but the dish was not at all spicy and contained only a few cubes of dry chicken. To my American palate, the tangle of chewy, cylindrical white rice cakes was doughy and unappetizing.
Bonchon does not have a full bar, but serves a nice selection of beer, as well as soju, Korea's traditional vodka-like liquor distilled from rice and barley. On my first visit, I enjoyed a very light lychee soju cocktail ($12.95 small; $15.95 large) and went full bore the second time with a bottle of Chamisul brand soju ($12.95) and a shot glass. According to Tseng, Bonchon's savory chicken cries out for an accompanying glass of beer or soju. I would not disagree.
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