Bangkok chicken craze: How Korea elbowed out Kentucky

Bangkok chicken craze: How Korea elbowed out Kentucky

Two Thai women -- won over by BonChon chicken in New York -- are converting Bangkok's taste buds
Bon Chon Chicken Bangkok
Sorry, Colonel. BonChon's Korean fried chicken is taking over the town.

Think of fried chicken, and the first place that comes to mind is probably Kentucky, not Korea. Only natural when you consider the daunting prominence of a particular American fast-food chain.

But now Bangkok diners are licking their lips rather than their fingers at the prospect of BonChon, which specializes in Korean-style fried chicken.

The first branch of BonChon opened in the South Korean port city of Pusan in 2002,  serving "healthier, crispier, and juicier" chicken, with little grease and zero trans fats, and coated in either soy garlic or spicy soy garlic.

It quickly became a local favorite, with outlets sprouting all across the country. By the end of 2007, BonChon had leapt across the Pacific and opened up six restaurants in the northeastern United States.

It soon had U.S. food critics raving, with glowing write-ups in papers such as the New York Times praising the crunchy and non-greasy chicken, that's usually presented with cubed pickled daikon radish, and is best accompanied by plenty of beer or the flavored Korean spirit soju -- or both.

Scott Rabb, a food critic at Esquire magazine, even went so far as to declare the wings the best –- an almost sacrilegious comment in the self-declared home of chicken wings -– he had ever tasted.

"The chicken wings they sling at Manhattan’s BonChon are Korea's answer to Buffalo and the wing-qua-wing riddle -- are chicken wings worth all the bother? The answer, from bite one, is the bliss of a whispered yes. It isn't merely today's best chicken; it's perfect, the best fried chicken I've ever had."

Two Thai women -- Polly Wongsirikul and Tanya Sripatamasakul -- studying at university in the United States found themselves agreeing with the critics’ praise.

“When we first tried BonChon in New York, it was love at first bite,” says Polly. “The addiction was very real and we found ourselves returning time and time again, sober and drunk, to devour their fried chicken.”

Bon Chon BangkokA complete BonChon feast includes gyoza, chicken wings, joints, kimchee coleslaw and shots of strong strawberry soju.

When the pair returned to Bangkok, they approached the Korean company about establishing a franchise operation in the Kingdom.

“We saw a huge potential for such a unique taste in Thailand and we thought it would be a great addition to the Thai palette,” says Polly, who now heads up marketing for the new BonChon outlet in Thonglor’s latest lifestyle mall, Seenspace.

According to Polly and Tanya, BonChon allows franchisees to tailor the interior design to suit their own market (or the owner’s tastes), and even allows adaptations to the menu as long as they don’t compromise on the original fried chicken recipe.

At Seenspace, BonChon occupies a contemporary space filled with angular black and beige furnishings, cylindrical table spotlights and a wall-length black and white mural of the New York skyline.

The soundtrack is a hip playlist by acts such as The Strokes, recalling the music Polly and Tanya used to hear in New York.

Item number one on the menu is BonChon chicken, with almost a page to itself. First, you choose whether you want wings, drumsticks, boneless or combo, and how many pieces you want (small 150 baht, medium 230 baht, or large 380 baht), then select your flavor (soy, garlic or hot), and finally your choice of side -- coleslaw, kimchee coleslaw, rice or sticky rice.

Additional choices include a serving of pickled radish for 40 baht, fried potstickers (gyoza, 120 baht), and seasoned fries (100 baht). If you’re into gristle, the chicken joints (soy, garlic or hot, 120 baht) make for a great appetizer to go with a glass of lychee soju.

When the main event arrives, it doesn’t take more than a few bites to see what had the U.S. media chomping at the bit: the coated meat of BonChon fried chicken is absolutely delicious, and, as promised, is crispy without being greasy.

Kamsamnida Korea. From now on we’ll never look at chicken quite the same way again.

BonChon Chicken, 2/F, Seenspace, Thonglor 13. Tel: +66 (0)2 185 2361. www.facebook.com/bonchonthailand. Soft opening hours: 6 p.m.- midnight

Growing up in colonial Hong Kong, Simon Ostheimer always felt more at home in Asia than anywhere else. He is now in Phuket where he is Managing Editor of The Phuket News.

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