11 Best Korean Chicken Joints 2019
A Short History of Korean Chicken
Chicken and beer have become serious institutions in South Korea. Fried chicken started showing up around 1970, when cooking oil became more affordable. In the 1980s and 1990s, chicken “hofs” that served fried chicken and beer popped up everywhere. This was likely due to early forced retirement for mid-level managers in Korea Inc.’s chaebol conglomerates. Korean chicken hofs were sold as turn-key business solutions. Since so many opened on every corner, Koreans started going to them because they were there. These days, there are more chicken franchise locations in Korea than there are McDonald’s in the entire world.
The Korean chicken hof has gone through phases. I’m a personal fan of the 1990s style. Small free range birds with papery breading and strong Asian aromatic flavors. Or as one chef I shared chicken with said, smelled like a cinnamon doughnut. The more modern style is closer to American fried chicken, dipped in a flour breading with all the nooks and crannies. There are a few franchises I like from this vein as well.
Chicken hofs, as with most hofs, serve free snacks, called Bbongtwigi. These can be bowls of puffed wheat or puffed corn rings that I call “styrofoam crunchies.” I particularly like the styrofoam crunchies. They remind me of Bugles. Something else–the name is an amalgam of the word for “fried,” being “twigim” and the onomatopoeia of what it sounds like popping out of the machine. These machines are small, and you can find someone making and selling these things from the back of their Bongo truck. Funnily, though, “bbong” is also the sound of a fart. So I call these “fried farts.”
My rule of thumb is this. To tell a good chicken place, look at the people inside. If it’s full of beautiful young women taking selfies, likely isn’t good chicken. If it’s full of middle-aged men who look like life has kicked them in the teeth–GREAT CHICKEN!
Here are some consistently good chicken franchises and spots. Add your favorites in the comments.
Two-Two Fried Chicken 둘둘치킨
Everyone knows my love for Two-Two. It’s one of the oldest franchises and the first taste I had of Korean fried chicken. The birds they use are bony, but that means they aren’t factory raised. They actually have flavor. The crust is thin, delicate, and has that Chinese five spice and cinnamon scent that I always associate with Korean chicken hofs. This chicken screams for beer.
NOTE: We offer this as an add-on on the Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out food tour. Check it out here–>
Big Hit Chicken. Actually, they keep changing what the acronym stands for. This is the old standby and the typical family-style Korean chicken joint.
Acronym for a name?
K-pop group as spokespeople?
It’s reliable, predictable, but satisfying.
Join the Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl
Eat your way through the past, present, and future of this grand Korean institution. No trip to Seoul is complete without booking this tour.
This is the one most Americans think of when talking about Korean fried chicken. The thing is, Kyochon is the only franchise I know of that does it this way–batter dipped rather than rolled in flour or starch. The batter is garlicky with a slight sweetness. The crust shatters and stays crispy a long time. If you order it “yangnyeom” style, they meticulously paint the sauce on each piece individually. Caution–the breading really seals the contents inside. Expect a hot geyser of chicken juice to burst out in your first bite.
Pronounced Bee-bee-kyoo. It’s the king of chicken franchises in Korea. They follow the American style of frying, but their flavor is unique. Claiming to fry their chicken in olive oil, they obviously feel like they have to chase KFC. They boast over 20 herbs and spices. BBQ’s flavor is unique and hasn’t been copied. You can smell a BBQ a block away.
They specialize in classic style, but they also make a mean pa dalk, boneless fried chicken thighs served in a sweetish peanut sauce and shredded leeks. The other half of their name refers to golbaengi, sea snails. For some reason they think that chilled spicy sea snail noodle salad goes well with fried chicken. It sorta does, TBH. Reminds me of trips to the beach in my earlier times in Korea. It’s been going through a re-branding to appeal to a younger crowd (note the two logos). We go to one of these on the Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl. The location we go to violates my rules for clientele, but it’s still great Korean chicken.
This is a new player. You can tell by the design of the restaurants with the bold lettering and well designed posters. The chicken here is excellent, especially the garlic chicken. They have a decent variety, and I say they’re the one to beat in the near future.
Not really a franchise. It’s a popular spot in Gangnam. It’s popular for being popular, but it has its fans. They serve fried chili peppers with their chicken, which is their schtick. I’m putting it here because people I respect like it. I personally had bad ju-ju with the owners when we were arranging a TV show to shoot there. One of them said they didn’t want more foreigners in their restaurant. I know where I’m not welcome.
Going into oven chicken territory, Goobne (GOOB-nay) has been getting popular lately. And it’s good. Even though Korea’s gone through many “well-being” food fads, for some reason chicken hasn’t registered. A Korean co-worker of a friend of mine said that since the fried chicken she was eating was Korean, it was healthy.
Goobne has promoted itself as a healthy alternative to fried. All I know lately is that when we order it, it’s stripped to the bone like those Winged Devourers did on “Beastmaster.”
Similar to Goobne, Vons chicken itself is roasted/baked. Its edge is that it comes with a variety of sauces for whatever fits your personality. Kind of like a K-Pop mega-group.
Hoo-La-La holds a special place in my heart. They were big around 2007 and then evaporated around 2010. They headed up the smoked barbecued chicken craze of that time. It’s hard to find this style of chicken anymore. A restaurant that serves this style is on our Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl. If you can find a Hoo-La-La, go for it. It’s dark. It’s cozy. And the chicken comes out sizzling on an iron plate, smothered in what we call “crack sauce.” Because it’s addictive.
A new entry from a new franchise. They distinguish themselves by serving craft beer. You can still get classic corporate beer, but at least you have the option. It kind of violates my rules for a good chicken place. They have nice interiors (but so does Kanbu). The clientele is a good mix of young and old, so it’s not your greasy uncle’s chicken spot.
Their “fried farts” are those little chicken flavored snacks. The chicken itself is fine. They serve a lot of other things, and they supply funky utensils for eating it. It comes in innovative new flavors as well. Honestly, I don’t know if this franchise will stick. In my neighborhood, my party has been the one of the only ones drinking the craft beer. Others were sticking to Cass and soju. [website]
Just to shake up the anthill, there are a couple fried chicken chains I’m not too fond of.
One of the early BBQ copycats that just didn’t get it. It’s just bland. They do nothing that makes them stand out. I’d put ToreOre in this column, too.
Man, was I excited when one opened in my area. They look so good–boneless fried chicken with housemade potato chips! Hat Dave and I could barely finish our order from the grease overload. They offer salads to balance the grease, I guess. This was where I started developing my chicken hof rule of thumb. We noticed we were surrounded by pretty young co-eds eating salad.
They actually thought chicken flavored with banana, strawberry, and melon was what the world needed.
BUT I’M WRONG…
What are your favorite and least favorite Korean chicken restaurants?