South Korea is a country drowning in fryer oil. By one estimate, the nation boasts more than 30,000 Korean fried chicken outlets — or KFC joints, as they’re known to regulars — which translates to one for every 1,500 residents. It’s unchecked poultry aggression.
BonChon, a company founded in 2002, was among the first to flee the madness and search for markets outside South Korea. The United States — home of the original KFC, not to mention southern fried chicken, Buffalo wings, Nashville hot chicken, the variations virtually endless — was an obvious target. BonChon opened its first U.S. outlet in 2006 in New Jersey and has been steadily adding franchises ever since, concentrated mostly on the east and west coasts. The Mid-Atlantic, from Richmond to Ellicott City, claims 15 BonChons alone.
That kind of growth, bacteria-like in its speed, naturally inspires imitators, just as White Castle, McDonald’s and Chipotle had before BonChon. The $20 Diner had earlier spotted KoChix along Florida Avenue Northwest, a small mom-and-pop establishment that owes a debt to another KFC chain in South Korea, KyoChon. But let’s not kid ourselves: Without BonChon, KoChix would be passing out a lot more mumbo sauce with its wings.
Now, two more joints have entered the local fray. Each takes a different approach to Korean fried chicken even though they both pair their double-fried birds with alcohol and manly games, as KFC restaurants continue to redefine the American sports bar experience.
DAK! Chicken in Shirlington (4040 Campbell Ave., Arlington, 571-982-5862, www.dakchicken.com) adopts a sleek, clublike persona. Its black-and-red interior, with flat-screens dedicated to either smash-mouth football or sensual K-pop videos, suggests a bordello waiting room for those who like to track their DraftKings lineup. The air of self-gratification can infect the staff, too, which sometimes shows more interest in the games or in going home than in serving customers.
Chef and co-owner Jae Kim takes a pared-down BonChon approach to his menu, offering made-to-order fried chicken, a few apps and sides, and a number of other entrees, mostly variations on the same marinated bulgogi meat. The bulgogi tacos, served in crispy, U-shaped shells with tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, kimchi and shredded cheese, look like an early Taco Bell prototype for the Seoul market: Kor-Mex snacks by way of the American Industrial-Food Complex. I liked them more than I should. The self-flagellation will commence now.
I’d like to administer a few lashings to the creator of the spicy pork tacos, also served in crispy Tex-Mex shells. The squishy strips of Korean-style pork clash with the garnishes, particularly the squirts of sour cream, a flavor mashup that inspires a conceptual gag reflex. The potstickers, with your choice of glaze, are a slight improvement, but the juicy pork-and-cabbage filling is undermined by wooden wonton wrappers.
The stars of the show here are the wings and drumettes, which makes sense given that “dak” is Korean for “chicken,” says co-owner Joohyun Gil. When the kitchen nails the dish, it makes for a sticky-and-fiery experience that rivals anything BonChon delivers. At their peak, the wing parts arrive red-hot and glistening, their fat rendered so completely it leaves only a thin coating of skin, seasonings and glaze; they’re tiny chicken tacos in their own crispy shells. The best of the house-made glazes is the hot sauce, ignited with Korean gochujang paste, which can make your lips feel as if they have been stabbed with forks. When the kitchen isn’t hitting on all cylinders? Forget everything you just read and think: flaccid bird, soft-spoken glazes.
Over in Bethesda, Momo Chicken + Jazz (4862 Cordell Ave. 240-483-0801, www.momofc.com) perpetually dances on the edge of absurdity, which is one reason I adore the place. Start with the decor: The space’s industrial-style walls come adorned with vintage LP covers and vinyl discs, many of which pander to boomer nostalgia. What the Doobie Brothers, Elton John and John Lennon have to do with jazz is beyond me. Even the sound system leans toward pop, more Katy Perry than Charlie Parker. Perhaps the “+ Jazz” reference is tongue-in-cheek, given Lennon’s well-documented disdain for the genre? “Jazz never does anything,” the late Beatle once said.
Momo Chicken does many things, more than its name suggests. Owner Sung Kim and his general manager wife, Rose, are Korean natives who have made a living building other people’s restaurants; for their own place, they’ve embraced a sort of kitchen-sink philosophy. Momo stretches far beyond Korean fried chicken, serving miso ramen, pork buns, fish tacos, chicken teriyaki, even french fries. It’s the kind of menu that has DESPERATION stamped across its pages.
Except every dish I ordered here made an effective argument for itself, even when chef Me Yaun Kim fumbled an element or two. Like the miso ramen: Its egg halves were fully cooked, leaving no runny yolk to enrich the soup, but the broth had such depth, I barely missed it. The bulgogi hot stone bibimbap, a dish known as dolsot bibimbap in less gentrified Zip codes, was missing a lightly fried egg, but a specialized gochujang sauce tied together the beef, meaty slices of shiitake and seasoned vegetables just fine. Even better, the rice at the bottom of the bowl peeled away, crispy and hot.
Here’s the thing: You can probably find a place that does every one of Momo’s dishes better than Momo does, whether pork buns (sweet and spicy, pillowy and pleasurable, but short on pork), seafood scallion pancakes (crispy, skimpy on seafood and best with a fiery dipping sauce) or the fried chicken itself. Momo’s birds are passable, sometimes more than that, but they can parade the defects as much as their delights. It might be thick coating, a flabby crust or a glaze that needs to be dialed up a notch or two.
But taken as a whole, Momo has created a singular space, a Korean home-style restaurant disguised as an industrial, retro-hip KFC joint. It’s odd. It’s charming. It’s a pleasure to pull up a stool, order a craft beer on draft and watch the American sports bar — and the KFC concept — evolve right in front of your eyes.