Korean fried chicken and chi-maek pubs (a portmanteau of “chicken” and “maekju,” or chicken and beer) became all the rage in Koreatown when Kyochon first roared into L.A. in 2007.
Following the initial gold rush for Korean fried chicken (or “K.F.C.” as it was slyly dubbed by fans), a wide range of competitors have come and gone, including many Korean chains that weren't able to capitalize on the chicken's early success. Bonchon — Kyochon’s direct competitor — opened up down the street from Kyochon in 2008 but shuttered in 2011.
Kyochon grew to four locations outside of L.A. city limits, then promptly closed all but one. Meanwhile, Bonchon expanded like proverbial wildfire across the nation, opening 40-plus branches in the United States, with 14 more planned — yet managed to carefully avoid L.A.
Is Koreatown really that tough of a market for gochujang-glazed fried chicken?
The answer, it turns out, is no. A few years later, nearly every hip fusion restaurant in K-town — from the Bun Shop to Little Tart — is serving some iteration of K.F.C. The first few months of 2016 have proven to be a major boon for Korean-style chicken — even as Nashville hot chicken is the rage elsewhere in town. With a fresh injection of ambitious Korean franchises and a wide variety of wing flavors (often paired with a multitude of non-crappy beers), Korean fried chicken is peaking once again.
Here are three new spots to hop on the K.F.C. bandwagon.
This chain of American-inspired fried chicken shops first opened in Korea in 1977 (hence the name) and has since racked up more than 40 branches there. The first American outlet took over the fading BBQ Chicken space on Vermont in April and has brought about a new perspective on globally inspired fried chicken. The chicken here, much like at Kyochon, is double-fried and packs a decent crunch, but it's the deep roster of flavors that impresses.
The “Real Hot Pepper Chicken,” which is assigned four chili peppers on the menu, is evocative of Sichuan-style spicy chicken, tossed with whole dried red chili peppers, jalapeño slices and scallions. Oddly, there’s an American-inspired version, which arrives as five pieces of undressed thighs and another flavor simply called “Chinese chicken.” A whole order of bone-in chicken is served with a choice of up to two sauces and arrives in a dimpled, stainless-steel boat on a bed of fries. Don’t ignore the fries — they become sponges of flavor, like the soggy spiced fries at Dino’s Chicken. Just make sure to eat the fried chicken within minutes of being served, as the fry batter with egg waits for no one. 698 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown; (213) 263-2686.
This restaurant, owned by brothers Kevin and Sam Koo, is the lit version of the proverbial Korean fried chicken pub. These woke brothers run the spot like an American-Korean sports bar: There is Korean pop streaming through the speakers but Lakers on the flatscreens. There is spicy fried chicken but also chicken and waffles. There is Hite, but there are also (pre-batched) Old-Fashioneds. The overall product reads as if the brothers just finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five and decided to follow its ethos during the build out. It can all be very intimidating until one takes a big bite of a piping hot and perfectly crunchy chicken wing, followed by a big swig of Flying Dog's Raging Bitch IPA. Despite the giant TVs silently showing a variety of games, Plato doesn’t offer the typical visual and aural offenses of an American sports bar. It has a loungy vibe and servile waitstaff, as well as idiosyncratic friend chicken flavors including the pineapple-laced “coconut butter,” which all the cool kids seem to love. The fried chicken itself here is a bit evocative of Popeye’s, but with a more pronounced crunch and less interstitial fat. The crust stays on bite after bite, and even more importantly, it stays crisp despite the passage of time and a thorough glazing of sauce (spicy and soy garlic are available as well). That said, the most impressive element of Plato’s fried chicken efforts does not involve poultry at all. A “flight” of pickled muul (daikon radish) precedes the crispy wings. While some K-Town restaurants may procure their pickled daikon from mass producers, Plato is pickling its own serrano pepper radishes, yuzu radishes and traditional radishes in house. —Garrett Snyder, 3474 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 383-1984.
Zan Beer Pub
This new sports bar continues the tradition of great pochang machas (food tents). Located at the corner of Wilshire and Alexandria, Zan took over a fusion bar called Blink and decided to create a fried-chicken menu that supposedly caters to various generations of K-town dwellers. Here you'll find a variety of chicken freak-a-zoids — chicken strips topped with spicy whelk salad and “fire chicken” drowned in molten mozzarella are some of the more monstrous Zan Beer Pub creations. The safest bet is a whole order of the sweet and spicy double-fried chicken. The crusty outer shell is slathered in a moderately spicy and corn syrup-y sauce that may lead to obsessive finger licking and a slight burning sensation. The crunch on the bird here is satisfying, and the beer variety is just wide enough to not warrant an Uber trip elsewhere. Forward and reverse happy hours, plentiful booths, a truckload of giant flat-screens and frequent “fight night” screenings complete Zan’s efforts as a full-service sports bar. 3377 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 388-2337, zanbeer.com.