Which probably explains why owners Tom An and Paul Choi of the recently opened BonChon in Arlington (they run the Centreville location, too) decided to tweak their kitchen procedures during peak hours. Their goal is to have your fried chicken on the table within 15-20 minutes of your order, all the better to calm the savage Type-A beast.
I have mixed feelings about this concession to the uber-impatient among us. For me, the wait is part of the BonChon experience, a reflection of the time necessary to double-fry and rest these wing sections until they reach that perfectly rendered state in which the golden skin crackles under tooth. Besides, wouldn’t many of these time-commitment-phobes willingly linger 40-plus minutes for Palena’s famous roast chicken without complaint? Not to grant the same generosity to a fried-chicken chain strikes me as a double standard based on some unspoken form of classism.
Then again, I have my own prejudices. I like BonChon’s take on chicken wings far more than the version that took root in Buffalo. The classic barroom wings are, to me, essentially gloppy little grease bombs slathered in nuclear hot sauce then dunked into some industrial ranch-style dressing.
Crisp and sticky Korean-style chicken wings, by contrast, exude a certain fastidiousness. I was reminded of this while sitting in the bar of the BonChon in Fairfax, where the server explained my options in painstaking detail. I had walked in 30 minutes before the location officially opened for business at 3 p.m. on this Sunday. The server advised me that the kitchen was still prepping for service; the earliest I could have my chicken, he said, was about 3:30. Would I like to place an advance order and return? Or order a beer or appetizer and wait? I opted to do both — pre-order my chicken and munch on an appetizer — so I could luxuriate in the cool confines of this relaxed strip-mall space on a blistering hot afternoon.
Pre-ordering is not the only difference between the Fairfax and Arlington locations; the latter does not (at present) offer the service. The menus vary slightly, too, though not with the battered birds that get top billing.
In Fairfax, for example, you can order ramyun, a spicy noodle soup somewhat similar to Japanese ramen. Despite what the server may tell you, the ramyun is not appetizer size; it’s a small pot packed with cute curly noodles, whose chewiness is a major attraction (along with the soup’s heat, which surrounds and accents each ingredient like a jazz pianist coloring a soloist’s every note). The Fairfax location offers a scallion pancake, a platter-sized round that looks, at first blush, to ooze enough oil to make your own salad dressing. But that’s not oil; it’s the same garlic-soy glaze you can order for your chicken, and it works just as well on these pungent slices.
Arlington has its specialties, too, like steamed buns stuffed with thick slices of pork belly, ringlets of Persian cucumbers, strips of pickled radish and green onions. The buns add an element of Momofuku sophistication to this sleek suburban space outfitted almost top to bottom in wood planks (on a busy night, it can be as raucous as a poultry farm there), though I think the kitchen is still working out the kinks in its dough recipe, which once resulted in soft pillowy buns and once in dry, crumbly ones. Arlington also has a full bar, with a line of specialty cocktails, for those who want to pair their fried chicken with, say, a “gingertini.”
By and large, however, both menus toe the BonChon line, serving the same plates, although they may vary on naming conventions. Just remember: The bulgogi taco in Fairfax is the same as the bulgogi “ssam” in Arlington. They’re both tasty, bulgogi-fattened flour-tortilla wraps that adopt slightly more exotic names — reminders, I guess, that you’re not dining at the Korean equivalent of Chipotle.
But why waste your time on an Asian burrito? You’re here for Korean fried chicken, and both places serve their bird parts — your choice of wings, drumettes or breast-meat strips — on white china, the dishware reflecting the chain’s refined approach to its addictive wings. You can slather your chicken in either garlic-soy or hot sauce; you best take the latter seriously and occasionally cool your tongue with the gratis cubes of pickled daikon, BonChon’s stand-in for celery.
Don’t even get me started on those rubbery little celery stalks served with Buffalo wings.