Last night, quite unexpectedly, we went to KFC for dinner. Not the one you’re thinking of but… the other one, known as KyoChon Fried Chicken. At the corner of 32nd street and Fifth Avenue, it begins, or ends, one of New York’s youngest, hippest, most bustling night crawls lined with smartly-designed restaurants, tea rooms, tiny clothing boutiques, and the Korean equivalent of Whole Foods. “Korea Town” may not be very big, but it is very exciting. As you enter KyoChon, you immediately feel 10 years younger (or older) depending on whether you’re my husband or daughter. It is très chic with woven plastic walls, moody lighting, ultra-modern seating, cool colors, with fabulous music videos pulsating on the walls as you await your Korean beer or technicolor soju cocktail. Soju is a distilled beverage, generally rice-based, native to Korea whose taste (or lack thereof) is similar to vodka. You LOL as you read what it says on the door as you arrive, that “only 2 people in the world know the recipe.” One must be Mr. Won-Kang Kwon, who invented the double-dipped frying technique for supernal crispy chicken in 1991. The other person is probably his investor. It’s funny to think that only 2 people know about it because Mr. Kwon’s single humble restaurant now occupies 1000 locations in Korea, China and the U.S. Those guys really know how to keep a secret!
Drumsticks and wings are the highlights because they cook quickly. Often they have a thin coating of rice flour or potato starch or corn starch mixed with various Asian spices. Sometimes they have no coating at all. They are fried twice – the first time only partially cooked, the fat shaken off, and then left to rest a bit. Then they are fried again. Partial frying means that the chicken parts don’t need to spend as long in the hot fat for the inside to cook while the outside dries out and darkens. The result is an ultra-thin, ultra-crispy crust that – at its best – shatters when you bite into it. It is precisely the opposite of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which comes encased in a thick breading that frequently is crisp on the outside and gummy where the breading meets the chicken. This method was, reportedly, introduced in the U.S. by a chain called Bon Chon, but they’ve been overtaken by a company called KyoChon. Not all KFC joints adhere to the crackling crust ethos and sometimes you find the chicken parts coated with some sweet and gooey substance. Some fry-shops give you a choice of dipping sauces, some offer a choice of hot or not, some season their birds with nothing but salt and pepper. So there’s no real orthodoxy – just addictive chicken. And it’s authentic, and educational, to order a side dish of pickled daikon, sliced paper-thin and strewn with black sesame seeds –it’s “just the thing” to temper the very spicy (if you wish), delicious fiery glaze. Order half of your chicken with it and half without. So much fun. See you there.
KyoChon – 319 5th Avenue. NY, NY 212-725-9292