With so many new restaurants opening up that serve Nashville-style chicken, one might wonder if there is room for a different flavor.
Makers of Korean-style fried chicken think there is.
“I definitely think Korean fried chicken is going to be something that’s a household name and take over like Nashville fried chicken,” said Christina Hong, owner of Seoulmates, a new restaurant in Los Angeles.
Fans of Korean chicken say it’s incredibly crispy and lighter than American style. It is fried low heat, cooled, and then fried again at a higher temperature.
“It makes the outside really craveable and crunchy and keeps the inside really moist,” said Flynn Dekker, chief executive officer of Bonchon, a growing chain that serves chicken and other Asian dishes.
Here and there
Korean chicken doesn’t have the same penetration as Nashville chicken in Southern California, but it isn’t new. According to Dekker, it dates from the 1950s.
“Fried chicken went over to Korea during the Korean War. They put their own spin on it, and now it’s coming back. It started here, went there and now it’s come back in a new, different form.”
It can be found in neighborhoods such as Koreatown, a few blocks between Western and Vermont avenues in Los Angeles, and in places where foodies gather, such as food halls and food trucks. In Riverside County, where home kitchens can be licensed, it is served out of people’s homes.
South Korea is reported to have 36,000 fried chicken restaurants, and a few of them have crossed over. Pelicana Chicken, founded in 1982 in Daejeon, has what it calls a flagship store in Buena Park. Other locations are in Los Angeles, Artesia, Downey, the City of Industry and Rancho Cucamonga.
Bonchon was founded in 2002 in Busan, where it maintains a global kitchen. Dekker said the garlic soy and spicy sauces it uses to baste its chicken are still made there.
The brand came to the United States in 2006. It began as full service but began opening smaller fast casual restaurants as well in 2021.
The chain is in growth mode. It has 386 restaurants worldwide. More than 115 locations are in the United States, according to Bonchon’s latest financial report in July. It plans to open 120 more.
In opening new restaurants, the chain follows what Dekker called an “inside out strategy.”
“We start at the urban center and then we can work our way out into the suburbs.”
Most of Bonchon’s 23 California restaurants are in the Bay Area. In Southern California, it has locations in San Gabriel, Artesia, Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa. Dekker said it is planning on opening more.
“We have several stores scheduled to be built in Los Angeles County. We need to develop more in Riverside County. We’re having conversations with some folks there. Over the coming years, we’ll continue to fill out on the East and West coasts, but we’re really focused now on developing the Midwest.”
In July’s report, Bonchon stated its year-over-year sales increased 12 percent.
Chicken restaurants in general are doing well. According to research firm IBISWorld, fast food chicken franchises are a $40.6 billion industry and expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2022.
Bonchon added crunchy chicken bowls to its menu nationwide in mid-August, saying in a news release, “There is something for every chicken lover to enjoy at our restaurants.”
Wherever Bonchon goes in the United States, there’s a taste for the product, Dekker said.
“At the end of the day we serve a comfort food that Americans are comfortable with and enjoy, fried chicken. I don’t know too many people who don’t like that. On top of that, we’ve really taken it to another level, if you will.”
Part of the Korean Wave
There is more to these restaurants than chicken.
Other Korean dishes are finding their way onto American menus, such as rice bowls called bibimbap; fermented vegetables called kimchi; and bulgogi, thinly sliced marinated beef that Bonchon serves it as a main dish with rice and in wraps, soup and sliders.
Bolgogi helped Christina Hong of Seoulmates establish her business. She serves a fusion sandwich called a Bulghoagie.
“It has the sweet-savory flavor to it. Then it has provolone on top, wonton crisps for that nice crunch and texture and then the kimchi remoulade for that sour sweentess, and then a pickled cucumber. And then slaw just kind of ties it together.”
Hong also serves bulgogi as well as fried chicken and short ribs in tacos, which she said gives familiar foods a Korean twist.
“I like to use the tagline ‘Korean barbecue in a taco.’ I think that’s the most simplified way to put it. You have a lot of rich flavors with those Korean meats.”
Hong is from Chicago. She was introduced to the restaurant industry when her parents, who are Korean immigrants, opened a Charleys Philly Steaks franchise. She came to Los Angeles to open her own restaurant, only to be slowed down by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But she started a pop-up called Bulghoagie that was able to provide food service on the patios of bars in Glendale and West Hollywood during lockdown.
Now she has her own space near the Beverly Center, where she said her Korean fusion menu stands out.
“I eat Korean food pretty regularly, but in order to do that a lot of times I either had to order from K-Town or go all the way to K-Town. I live five minutes away from the restaurant. There aren’t any other Korean spaces around here. I do know that it’s very commercialized, where it’s something that people are looking for.”
Bonchon links the popularity of Korean food to the global rise of South Korean pop culture. The phenomenon is called hallyu, or Korean Wave. It can be seen in the popularity of bands such as BTS and Blackpink; the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Squid Game“; and “Parasite,” which in 2020 became the first foreign language film to win an Oscar for best picture.
Korean pop culture has its own convention, KCON, recently held at Crypo.com Arena in Los Angeles before a U.S. tour.
“I definitely think it’s Korean culture foods’ time to shine,” said Hong. “It’s honestly crazy to think how much things have evolved. … I was surprised how many people knew what bulgogi was.”
Bonchon is focused on international growth, not just the United States.
“We opened up Australia just this past year. We’ll open up France this year. And then we will start filling in the rest of the company and ultimately moving into Mexico and beyond,” Dekker said.
“It’s this really meaningful, purposeful intent of South Korea to import culture. You’ve got movies, TV and music. We feel like the sky’s the limit as far as we can go, and part of it is we have this wave of culture following behind us.”
Where: 8320 W. Third St., Los Angeles
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily