Chicken and beer have become serious institutions in South Korea. Korean style fried chicken started showing up around 1970, when cooking oil became more affordable. In the 1980s and 1990s, chicken “hofs” that served deep 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. Chicken hofs were sold as turnkey 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 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.
To sauce or not to sauce?
People debate whether Korean fried chicken needs sauce. I like to just get plain fried with some Yangnyeom Sauce on the side. “Yangnyeom” just means “seasoned” or “flavored.” In the Korean chicken realm it’s a sweet, garlicky, sticky, slightly spicy sauce.
Other popular flavors are soy sauce, buldalk “fire chicken,” and my other favorite, garlic chicken. This was invented in 1997 in the blue collar neighborhood near Daerim Station. Chopped garlic is stewed all day. After frying the chicken it’s baptized in this garlic mixture. Pure heaven!
How to know if it’s good
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.
Big Hit Chicken. Actually, they keep changing what the acronym stands for. This is the old standby and the typical family-style chicken joint.
Acronym for a name?
K-pop group as spokespeople?
It’s reliable, predictable, but satisfying.
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).
Gyerimwon 계림원 **NEW ADDITION 2021**
I have been so excited about this. It’s been my new favorite, and I can’t get enough of it.
Chickens are spit roasted over wood. Then they’re served on a sizzling platter of crispy rice. Usually it’s served with this sweet hot mustard and radish stem kimchi. Every time I take anyone to one of these places, the chicken is gone like velociraptors entered the building.
This style of chicken is called nureungji tongdalk 누릉지통닭, literally “scorched rice fried chicken.” It comes from Gangwon Province and has been growing in the Seoul Metro area. Gyerimwon is but one chain. Most all the places that serve this that I’ve been to have been outstanding. You’ll know it by the rotisserie chickens in the window, the ream of oak logs out front, and this heavenly smoked chicken smell.
Always start off with the original nureungji tongdalk. Then play with other variations, usually smothered in cheese, curry, or some other sauce. This will be your new favorite chicken and beer pairing.
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. 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.
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.
The modern style of Korean fried chicken just has no flavor, no soul. It is not much different than bland versions of American style fried chicken. The only thing that makes it Korean is that you can get it tossed in sauce.
Basic rule: avoid chicken places with gimmicks. Miniature tongs, finger condoms, beer served in Pyrex measuring cups.
Saenghwal Maekju appears as one of the newer chains capitalizing on the popularity of craft beer. Don’t expect much from the craft beer itself. It’s mediocre. The chicken is even worse. The other menu items–worser worser worser!
Seriously. Gelato on stale tortilla chips. I ordered this thinking, “If they have it on the menu, maybe they’re on to something. You know, like dipping salty fries into a Wendy’s Frosty.”
Nnnnope. It’s as if a five-year-old took over as menu consultant.
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?