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Fried fusion: Bonchon offers Korean version of American chicken classic

The Korean fried chicken at Bonchon, available as wings, drumsticks and strips, is thinly battered and twice-fried. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The Koreans adopted fried chicken from American troops in the 1950s and quickly made it their own, developing a thinly battered, twice-fried version that has become a staple in the country. It turns out that Americans have a taste for it too, as evidenced by the rapid growth of the fried chicken chain Bonchon.

Born in South Korea in 2002, Bonchon – “my hometown” in Korean – now includes dozens of U.S. franchises, including an Albuquerque location that opened earlier this year just off Unser near Interstate 40. The free-standing building sits at the edge of a spartan development with only a crisscrossing network of power lines to mar its view of the Sandias.

The restaurant’s Korean specialties and Asian fusion dishes are presented in a thick menu bound in wooden covers. Perusing the menu, with entire pages devoted to single items, is like looking through a photo spread in a magazine.

The six daily lunch specials, available from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., offer a good introduction to the place at prices a dollar or two less than the regular menu versions. Each comes with coleslaw, french fries or miso soup.

Fried chicken is offered as wings, strips or drumsticks for $8.99, with your choice of sauces. The spicy version might briefly render you unable to speak, but you’ll appreciate its great texture, with the crisp, thin-as-an-eggshell coating yielding to the moist meat inside.

Bonchon’s version of the traditional Korean dish bibimbap ($9.95) is a bowl of white rice topped with quinoa, vegetables and a scrambled egg cut into ribbons. You get your choice of protein on top, although I would stay away from the fried tofu: oversized, eggy blocks that look more grayish than golden-brown. It’s a good-sized bowl, but there’s nothing earth-shattering going on in it. You’ll need the accompanying packet of spicy red pepper sauce to give it a charge.

Sliders ($8.95) are offered with crispy chicken or bulgogi, beef marinated in a soy-garlic mix. The latter version’s thin-sliced rib-eye pieces have a salty, sweet and nutty flavor that pairs well with the accompanying cucumber, spicy mayonnaise, red onions and coleslaw. The battered french fries that came with it were excellent.

Pork buns showcase Bonchon’s excellent pork belly served with coleslaw, cucumbers and spicy mayo. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

A trip deeper into the menu finds three pork buns ($9.95) that showcase Bonchon’s exceptionally well-prepared pork belly. The half-inch-thick slices are nicely caramelized on the outside; inside, the fat has been rendered away, leaving them falling-apart tender. They’re served on slick, puffy steamed buns drizzled with thick, teriyaki-like katsu sauce.

Dessert is limited to mochi ice cream ($6), three sticky-rice-wrapped confections available in a few flavors. The refreshing citrus bite of the passion fruit version makes it the ideal palate cleanser for all the spicy foods that come before it.

Bonchon’s menu has an ominous disclaimer stating that its made-to-order chicken may take up to a half-hour to prepare, but ours was on the table in about 10 minutes. The staff did a fine job, perhaps motivated by the attentive manager roaming the premises.

Bonchon’s reimagining of a classic American classic comfort food makes it a welcome addition to the local food scene and definitely worth a visit.

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