Birds of a Feather

Photo: Ben Stechschulte/Redux

Mark our words: 2007 will go down as the year KFC took on another, much more delicious meaning (to fried-chicken fanatics at least). Korean fried chicken, an inspired, delectable variation of our homegrown kind, has made gradual inroads Stateside, but not until recently has it reached critical mass in the region’s various Koreatowns. Why is this great news for finger-licking fans? The Korean bird, denuded of the southern-style classic’s heavy batter, is a thing of relative grace and minimalist beauty. Typically fried twice and painted with either a sweetish soy-garlic sauce or a pepper-flecked hot one, it’s most often sold in servings of wings, drumsticks, or combos, with a complimentary (and outlandishly healthy) side of pickled white-radish cubes for piquant crunch. When done right, the skin of these birds is paper-thin, crunchy, and greaseless, adhering harmoniously to the flavorful meat beneath. The distinctive preparation, though, is not the only mark of a Korean fried-chicken joint. There’s the slick, often-orange-hued décor, the lost-in-translation corporate slogan, and the refrigerator magnets. And to facilitate the massive amount of takeout business they hope to do, there’s the high-gloss, extra-fancy shopping bag—the symbolic bucket of the Korean fried-chicken world, if you will. Here’s how the new breed of poultry palaces stack up.

1. Unidentified Flying Chickens

71-22 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights; 718-205-6662
Plain brown paper bag notwithstanding, this stark spot serves some of the finest—dare we say delicate?—fried chicken we sampled; minimally sauced, audibly crunchy, and notably fresh. Decent fries too, but skip well-intentioned Americanisms like the chicken ranch BLT panini.

2. Kyochon

156-50 Northern Blvd., Flushing; 718-939-9292
The granddaddy of the Korean fried-chicken scene has outdoor tables, friendly service, and wicker baskets of dark, glistening wings and “sticks” incised with notches for enhanced sauce absorption (beware: The hot is hot). Plus, oddly, mozzarella sticks and a cabbage salad done in by its Thousand Island dressing.

3. Bonbon Chicken

98 Chambers St.; 212-227-2375
The least obviously “ethnic” of its ilk, Bonbon refers vaguely to “Asian-inspired flavors” and serves chicken strips, a sweet, vinegary coleslaw, and a soft white roll. All similarity to the original KFC stops there, though; Bonbon’s bird, in both sweet (good) and spicy (better) incarnations, is absolutely delicious—and available weekends at the Star Room in the Hamptons.

4. Kyedong

150-54 Northern Blvd., Flushing; 718-358-8300
At the New York flagship of a venerable Korean chain, in-house orders of tasty, well-seasoned wings and legs are served in skillets on slatted-wood trivets. The soy sauce is salty-sweet, the hot sauce is blazing, and takeout comes in a nifty flat box with a built-in compartment for the free soda.

5. Bon Chon Chicken

157-18 Northern Blvd., Flushing; 718-321-3818
314 Fifth Ave.; 212-221-2222

The countertop at the casual Queens location is covered with takeout bags awaiting orders, and the shelves are lined with teddy bears—a pointed departure from the Manhattan branch’s nightclubby vibe. But the chicken is identical: a crisp shell-like skin that doesn’t quite adhere to the mildly greasy meat, and a semi-hot glaze that’s better than the soy-garlic.

6. Very Well

41-22 162nd St., Flushing; 718-886-1262
Located off the main strip, this fried-chicken contender distinguishes itself with a relatively posh décor and a recipe that somehow incorporates red and white wines into the fried-chicken formula. “Wine Maturing Original Chicken” has an odd, off-tasting flavor, though, and a saucy marinade that renders the bird less than crisp, despite the unusually thick batter.

7. Cheogajip Chicken

160-24A Northern Blvd., Flushing; 718-445-0806
For some reason, this company has decided to brand its American operations as “Pizza & Chicken Love Letter,” even though there’s no pizza in sight. This was the only chicken we sampled that needed to be packed in a foil-lined box, so that the excess of thick, gloppy barbecue-like sauce wouldn’t soak through the bottom. Even the radish cubes were softer and sweeter than usual.

Birds of a Feather