"I don't know what that is but it is so freaking me out!"
As effusive dish introductions go, servers usually trend toward overheated praise. But at the overrun new Bonchon in Chinatown, our waitress brought an okonomiyaki pancake to our table with a fearful shudder: "Doesn't that freak you out, too?"
The dish? Not so much. But I could see what made her squirm. A thick top layer of shaggy bonito flakes (sheer ribbons of dried, smoked skipjack tuna) fluttered in the pancake's radiating heat like a forest of giant pencil shavings that had come alive to dance.
Maybe it was the throbbing K-pop videos of Jay Park breakdancing across the giant flat-screen TVs that fill this bilevel space that got those bonitos to boogie? Our server was clearly mystified. "I don't know what that is. I'm not Korean. Almost no one here is!"
It was an odd detail to let slip, but, oh, so telling. And not just because this okonomiyaki seafood pancake is actually one of a few Japanese comfort foods at Bonchon, which specializes in Korean fried chicken. No one seems to know much about the Korean food, either, and that includes the kitchen, which seemed completely lost when straying from its deep fryer. The cooks season much of the menu with two prepackaged sauces, and, frankly, struggled to cook rice.
It's disappointing given the hype that greeted this first local franchise of the South Korean chain, tucked into a new Sleep Inn on a sleepy stretch of Cherry Street. But with a sleek bilevel bar and mezzanine, Bonchon's mod red decor, trendy soju cocktails, K-pop scene, and solid reputation had no problem luring Twitter-primed, chicken-hungry hordes.
Bonchon ran out of chicken when it finally opened, with three-hour waits, phone orders crashing, and the kitchen cooking 1,500 wings an hour.
"It was craziness," concedes David Taing, who co-owns the franchise with Kenny Poon (no relation to Chinatown veteran Joe Poon) and Chris Huynh.
They've since adjusted, and the 80-seat restaurant now turns out an improbable 4,800 pounds of chicken a week - 8.5 pounds of bird per chair each night!
But after a couple of dismal experiences - dimmed by burnt and greasy food, regrettable lychee-yogurt-soju shots that tasted like kiddie medicine, pulsing flat-screen overload (with the Phillies flailing on one and bleach-blond Korean boy bands on another) - I just can't fathom why. And the fried chicken wasn't special, either.
The 13-year-old Bonchon chain didn't invent this other "KFC" - the thin-crusted, double-fried chicken that gets "hand-brushed" here with either sweet garlic-soy or red hot sauce spiked with gochukaru chili powder. But with more than 145 locations in eight countries, it's been credited with stoking the worldwide Korean fried-chicken cult. With United States franchises expected to increase from 27 to 50, Bonchon corporate should be concerned about consistency.
My teeth crunched into the meaty end of a drumstick, and, aside from the happy glow of hot sauce on my lips, the flesh was stringy, bland, and dry. The drumettes and blades were a better bet for approaching moist, but the chicken gets zero seasoning beforehand to keep the sweet sauce from becoming treacly sweet. The tenders, with no skin for batter to cling to, came out with underfried patches of falling-off crust.
Who knows whether this franchise is an aberration? But Bonchon is quite simply not even close to the best Korean fried chicken in Philly. Cafe Soho on Cheltenham Avenue (which inspired Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook to create their non-Asian riffs at Federal Donuts), Chix & Wings, Rice & Mix (wings only), are all superior. I still remember the taste of the whole brined-bird Korean fried-chicken meals Ann Coll made when still at Meritage.
Bonchon doesn't even make the best fried chicken wings in Chinatown. Those would be the salt-and-pepper fried wings topped with scallions and hot peppers at Tasty Place in the underground Asia Market at 11th and Race.
But Bonchon's significance really extends beyond the obsessive sport of an international fetish over wings. It speaks to the disappointment that seems inevitable these days when food-trend icons embark on corporate expansions juiced by the unrealistic expectations of social-media hype. It speaks to the changing dynamic of Philly's Chinatown, which has lately been drawing new energy from the young "bubble tea generation" of Asian Americans. (Kenny Poon also happens to own Tea Do).
Bonchon's growth is also a potentially seminal moment for bold Korean food, once seen as too hot and funky for a mainstream cross-over. But with the KFC craze (not to mention Korean tacos and a wider fermentation fervor), this opportunity is as ripe as good kimchi.
And Bonchon does serve many other Korean favorites beyond wings. But there isn't a single Korean in the kitchen at this Bonchon, owned by Chinese Americans ("I have Korean friends," Taing notes). And it shows with off-key renditions of bibimbap (with mushy rice), dully flavorless japchae noodles (despite a splash of sweet soy wing sauce), and a seafood-scallion pancake scorched black on the bottom.
The deep-fried potstickers were drenched in oil, as were the pre-frozen takoyaki balls stuffed with rubbery octopus and the shrimp shumai dumplings, typically steamed, but squishy here inside those fried crusts.
There were, to be sure, a handful of tasty plates - even if they won't win any beauty contests. The sauce-splattered salmon avocado ball looked as though it had been dropped onto a plate from the mezzanine. But we found that odd mound of crab stick and mayo salad, filled with tobiko, creamy avocado and tempura crunchies, then wrapped in torched salmon, to be unexpectedly delicious. The sweetly marinated bulgogi beef was best minced into little burger sliders, even if they were drowned in too much spicy mayo.
The tteokbokki platter looked something like Korean nachos laced with melted cheese and sauce. But instead of chips, there were floppy fish-cake squares and tubes of rice cake whose chewy texture was a perfect springboard for the lava red flow of wing sauce tempered by the bibimbap condiment's slightly sweeter blend. It was nothing a few cool crunchy cubes of pickled daikon couldn't tame.
If only our entire first meal of 11 plates hadn't been brought to the table in one nonsensical chaotic rush, it might have all been easier to digest. But then, confused service was just one of many challenges Philly's new Bonchon needs to overcome.
BONCHON (zero bells out of 4)
1020 Cherry St., 267-639-6686; bonchon.com
The South Korean chain that stoked the worldwide craze for super-crunchy Korean fried chicken has landed in Philly to serious hype and early sell-out lines at a sleek bilevel bar wrapped in TVs blaring K-pop videos and a frenetic energy that draws both Chinatown's hip new youth culture and chicken fans from the diverse beyond. Unfortunately, the local franchise's lackluster birds and amateur service only prove Philly already has several better versions of this "KFC." The rest of the fryer-forward menu, instead of being bulgogi's big breakthrough, turns out to be the worst Korean food I've ever eaten.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Salmon avocado ball; tteokbokki; bulgogi sliders; chicken wings ("half & half"); pickled daikon.
DRINKS Soju (rice liquor) cocktails are the popular feature here, though the house brand is so raw, it's preferable blended with fresh fruits. (The milky lychee yogurt blend is a taste I'll never acquire.) Beer by the pitcher is preferred for the spicy wings. Too bad the listed Korean beers (OB, Hite) were never available, leaving mostly basic macro brews plus Yards.
WEEKEND NOISE Even when crowds are low, the K-pop sound track pumps up the volume to a boisterous 92 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Saturday, 3-11 p.m. Dinner Sunday, 3 p.m.-midnight. Late-night menu Monday through Saturday, 11 p.m.-2 a.m.
Dinner entrees, $10.95 to $17.95.
All major cards.
Street parking only.