Korean fried chicken is the latest craze in fast food. We head to Dubai's Bon Chon Chicken to try it.
Kimchi to go: Bon Chon Chicken
Much as the Magnolia Bakery heralded the cupcake revolution in New York, then Red Mango and Pinkberry helped along the fro-yo boom, so too did Bon Chon Chicken help foster a food craze in the city - for KFC. But it's not as we know it. In this case, it stands for Korean fried chicken. From Seoul, Bon Chon Chicken spread to New York in 2007, one of a number of Korean fried-chicken joints springing up in the city. It quickly became a favourite street snack for its crispy, paper-thin crust and the tender, lightly seasoned chicken that lay within. Now you can find Bon Chon Chicken not only in Korea, America and Singapore but Dubai too.
It stands brightly on Trade Centre Road. Big, blown-up articles from The New York Times/i> decorate Bon Chon Chicken's glass facade, eulogies to fast food's new kid on the block. Inside, it is colourful and airy. Green and yellow tables dot the floor with orange and white chairs tucked under them. A flat-screen TV blares sparky Korean pop music videos. One pale, wooden wall is covered with Post-it notes - appreciative messages from the sharing, Facebooking generation. "Best wings in the city!" says one. "Very spicy but we love it," offers another. Another side is plastered with more New York Times coverage, and a similarly enthusiastic endorsement from Esquire.
Dubai's franchise has been set up by a 30-year-old Korean called Ryan SungHaak Chung. It has been open for two months, dishing out chicken and assorted accompaniments and delivering across the city, right down to the Marina. "There are lots of Koreans there," Chung explains. "Especially at the Jumeirah Beach Residence. Seventy per cent of Dubai's Koreans live there," he says in analytical, businesslike fashion, having told me that the city's Korean population stands at around 10,000.
Chung wasn't necessarily destined for life as the Middle East's master franchisee for Korean fried chicken. Three years ago, he came to Dubai in search of a career in real estate, having trained to be an architect in Korea. But given the recession, real estate proved an unlucky choice. Instead, he decided to branch out with a much-loved success from his home country. So what's the secret behind Korea's fried chicken?
"It's not greasy, even though it's deep-fried twice," Chung says. The double-frying process explains the crispy, thin outer skin. American-style fried chicken is soaked in buttermilk before cooking, which makes the thick, breaded outer layer especially thick and nobbly. With the Korean version, an Asian frying technique is used (with trans-fat-free oil), which draws the fat out of the skin, leaving a thin crust instead.
At Bon Chon Chicken, this crust comes in two shiny glazes - soy-garlic or hot. "The wings are best," says Chung as I nibble round a soy piece. It's a piquant, salty flavour and the chicken is still moist and soft despite the double frying. I move on to a hot drumstick. It's a scorcher that builds up in heat until your lips and mouth are burning. Both sauces are washed down with a palette-cleansing slug of fruit vinegar drink.
"This reduces the fat inside," says Chung, gesticulating at his stomach. "Will it make me thin?" He laughs in response, a touch nervously perhaps. So there is fat in Bon Chon Chicken, then? Yes, he says, before adding that he eats the chicken every day to test the quality. But Chung is skinny, so we agree happily that it's not nearly as unhealthy as a cheese burger. And what about the sides? Yes, there is the ubiquitous yellow fry. But stride out and be more adventurous with the menu's Korean dishes. There's mandu, a cripsy kind of vegetable dumpling that hails from China. There are perfectly square cubes of refreshing, pickled white radish, and there's kimchi - Korea's pickled and fermented cabbage. Kimchi at Chung's Bon Chon Chicken comes in fried rice and coleslaw, both infused delicately with the red cabbage.
"The sauces I get from Korea, but kimchi I get from the same supplier that does The Address and the Burj Al Arab," Chung says. All in all, you could gorge yourself for around Dh30. As I eat, sucking at my fruit vinegar to cool my mouth, lunchtime customers drift in and out. He and his 10-strong team are busiest at night, Chung says. Plans to expand? "Of course," he shrugs nonchalantly. "Ten restaurants in the UAE within three years."
The UAE could do with a Bon Chon invasion. Bon Chon Chicken, opposite Spinneys on the Trade Centre Road, Dubai. Open noon to midnight. 04 397 7650.