Bon Chon Chicken
Times have changed. It wasn't so long ago that King Kong tried to take New York and got his big hairy behind kicked. Now it appears a South Korean chicken joint has prevailed where a 60-foot gorilla fell flat on his face. Bon Chon Chicken has seemingly swept all before it in the Big Apple, winning gushing plaudits from the likes of Esquire magazine, GQ and the New York Times. But since New York is the town that recently went all giddy over cupcakes, should we be getting equally excited about the fried chicken chain's arrival in Dubai?
Bon Chon's first foray into the Middle East occupies an unassuming location among a stretch of fast-food joints on Trade Centre Road. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hardee's, Pizza Hut and KFC, Bon Chon appears to be having no delusions of grandeur about its place among the city's restaurant hierarchy. Yet unlike those giant, impersonal corporate fodder factories, Bon Chon has a certain charm and amateurish naivety about it that instantly sets about winning you over before you've so much as nibbled your first wing.
A wall plastered with Post-it notes drew me across the bright and cheerful restaurant while we waited for our food (which wasn't as fast as fast-food should be). The doodled missives to Bon Chon's particular brand of fried loveliness ranged from opportunistic classified ads - "Sanoo Architects & Engineers :)" - to this artful little sketch...
The Spy Who Fried Me: Yes, the James Bond character appears to have bludgeoned Colonel Sanders with a chicken drumstick.
... and this culturally sensitive tribute to the first Bon Chon Chicken to open in a Muslim country:
It was just as well the wall-art was so absorbing, as our chicken took a while to materialise, which wasn't completely ideal since the air conditioning wasn't working. It hadn't taken us long to choose, however, since the menu is somewhat limited. I plumped for the chicken fillets combo, consisting of three pieces of chicken, three Korean style mandu dumplings, some bread and a diet coke - all for the grand sum of Dhs20.
Across the table, my by-now ravenous companion opted for the wings combo, featuring half a dozen wings, French fries, bread and a coke. I added a tub of kimchi coleslaw for good measure and set to work demolishing the lot. What became immediately apparent was that Korean-style chicken isn't like KFC-style fried chicken in that it isn't slathered in a thick, breadcrumb-based batter. Instead, it's merely licked by a special marinade - either "soy" or "hot" flavour - that thinly coats the surface, leaving it light and crisp to the touch after being fried in oil that contains no trans-fats. The frying process takes place in two stages so that the meat cooks through, but the coating doesn't burn or go too dark and crunchy. What you're left with is a barely dressed morsel, sizzling hot and full of tangy spice - a kind of Asian KFC in nothing but its underwear.
The chicken wasn't quite as crisp as promised, and neither did it sing sweet songs to my palate in either of its garlicky "soy" or lip-burning "hot" incarnations. The fillets were little more than goujons, modest strips of breast meat, while the wings were so tiny they were barely enough to get into a flap about. What we had here was a preparation style that was different, tasty, and arguably healthier than the fat-saturated fried-chicken to which many of us have become accustomed. But there was very little more than that. In fact, I was just as taken with the kimchi coleslaw, which presented the famous Korean fermented pickled cabbage in a spicy mayonnaise sauce. Although quite what those big lumps of baguette were all about, I can't quite fathom. Still, the diet-friendly portions were soon stripped to the bone...
Since "banchan" is the Korean word for a small side-dish, perhaps Bon Chon is best regarded as nothing more than a welcome addition to the Dubai fast-food scene, a pleasant distraction rather than a main event in itself. But if this is the way to get New Yorkers' knees knocking, perhaps next time King Kong decides to shimmy up the Empire State Building he should think about wearing a giant chicken suit?
Bon Chon Chicken, Trade Centre Road, Dubai, 055 266 2466.