But there’s a whole wide world of Korean fried chicken (often called “The Other KFC” on these shores), of which Washingtonians remain largely ignorant. South Koreans do not live under the perpetually gray skies of a BonChon totalitarianism. They have vast choices, as varied as the many shades of fried chicken in the American South.
Now we have a choice in Washington, too. Last fall, a small mom-and-pop shop opened on Florida Avenue NW, near the LeDroit Park neighborhood. It’s called KoChix, as in Korean chicken, and its owners will tell you straight up that their wings and drumettes owe a large debt to KyoChon, another Korean fried chicken chain that has started to infiltrate the U.S. market.
KoChix is not affiliated with that chain, but chef and co-owner Karen Park learned how to fry her wing parts from a friend who had secured recipes from a KyoChon franchisee in South Korea, says son Sean Park, general manager of the District carryout. If this sounds like a shaky approach to KFC mastery — like a copy of a copy of an original document, with all the loss of definition implied — then perhaps you best forget everything you just read in this paragraph. It will lead to undue bias.
The fact is, on her best days, Karen Park double-fries some terrific Korean chicken, similar but different to the ones at BonChon. The thin eggshell coating of her wings and drumettes (no kiddie white-meat strips here) crackles under tooth as well as anything from that better-known Korean fried chicken outlet in the ’burbs. But her coating has a rugged appearance, with occasional crater-like protrusions on the surface, as if she were applying the batter (or the baking powder in the batter) with a heavy hand. I’m not complaining, just reporting.
More pronounced are the differences between KoChix’s two sauces (honey-spicy, soy-garlic) and the pair at BonChon (hot, soy-garlic). Despite similarities in name, the sauces exhibit remarkable disparities in taste: KoChix’s versions speak softly and carry a big stick. By that, I mean they seem stickier and more muted than their counterparts at BonChon, as if KoChix’s sauces were channeling the mannered culture of South Korea. By contrast, BonChon’s sauces have that strutting, steroidal, hide-the- children flavor profile that strikes me as particularly American. The chain’s hot sauce could go toe-to-toe with a few of those blazing Buffalo-style sauces that get used, I believe, to melt ice off sidewalks in Upstate New York.
KoChix’s honey-spicy wings don’t require BonChon-esque cubes of pickled daikon to soothe second-degree mouth burns, mostly because the sauce here wouldn’t cause a newborn kitten to recoil from the heat. This honey-spicy glaze leans toward the sweet side of the spectrum, satisfied to leave a tingle on your lips, nothing more. If you want more heat, you have to go off menu and specifically request the hot honey-spicy sauce, which is another one of those menu terms straight from the Department of Redundancy Department. I wish I could tell you how molten the sauce is, but I didn’t learn about it until my visits were over and I was fact-checking.
What I can tell you, however, is that the Parks used to run a deli in Deale, Md., and as such, they offer plates that wouldn’t pass inspection in your average KFC joint in Seoul: Philly cheesesteak, fish and chips and a cheeseburger sub, to name a few. The bread for the cheesesteak is crustier than that plush-toy of a roll that real Philadelphians love, which means that I’ll take the KoChix bread 10 times out of 10. And lest I lose my critic’s credentials, I found much to enjoy with the cheesesteak, a big, gloppy bomb underneath that crackly exterior. The cheeseburger sub (I mean, what kind of superhuman willpower must you need to pass on that?) is an equally messy, if mustard-heavy, bite on the same crusty roll. There likely isn’t a farm-fresh ingredient within three blocks of this sub, and for the five minutes it took me to eat it, I didn’t care.
The other Korean dishes on the KoChix menu run hot and cold. Those who have been nurtured on beef bibimbap should know that the one here comes without meat, an unhappy surprise should a hungry carnivore pop the plastic lid far from the shop. Just as problematic for me: a craggy, over-fried egg had affixed itself, barnacle-like, to the veggies in my rice bowl, robbing me of a runny yolk, my secondary sauce in bibimbap. I was far happier with the “bulgogi bap,” a rice bowl topped with sweet, chewy, beautiful seared ribbons of beef.
The owners’ open-ended approach to a KFC shack extends all the way to the dessert offerings: a small case next to the cash register stuffed with such candy as M&Ms and Hershey’s chocolate bars. You have to love a place where you can finish your combo box of Korean fried chicken with a sleek package of Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates.