Saturday, 6 March 2010

Bon Chon Chicken: do these Korean wings flap or flop?


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.


  1. Hi James, I checked back a few times this week here to see if u had hot Bon Chon yet :-) Happy to see that you went.

    I went today. Like you, I wasn't impressed. For us the a/c was working and the chicken wasn't piping hot because the a/c made it get cold very quickly (common Dubai problem). As you mention, the chicken wasn't crispy enough. I had wings and drumsticks. The hot option tasted too vinegary...a kind of tabasco sauce chicken effect. The sweet was a bit too sweet for me and I couldn't make out the garlic undertones at all. I had ordered half sweet and half spicy so I ate one of each intermittently to achieve a balance. I had kimchee mandu as my side...deep fried tofu and kimchee dumplings. Not good...stuffing was flavorless mush. The soy dipping sauce that came with them also had too much vinegar in it. I ordered the daikon radish in sugared vinegar as a side. I liked that. It gave a balance to the overall oiliness (what "without the grease"?) of the food. Overall, it wasn't awful or inedible or anything. But it definately wasn't particularly delicious. I wouldn't make a trip back there. I am disappointed because I love Korean food and usually when I hear people raving about good Korean eats, the food turns out to be really good. (have you had table top BBQ at the secret Al Ghurair tower Shogun resto? Fully booked with Koreans even on weeknights!!! awesome food!) So I was actually saddened by the mediocrity of Bon Chon. My husband said the taste is "suitable for Americans" because he thinks we eat very sweet food...perhaps he is right and that is why Bon Chon is so highly acclaimed there.

  2. Yes, I have been to Shogun and had a giant feast. Loved it. That was a while ago, though, so I should return soon. Koreana in Satwa is another Korean favourite.

    I'm not sure if either do a fried-chicken option, but when there are so many better things to eat at a Korean restaurant than fried chicken, I've never really looked. In a straight shoot-out between Bon Chon and KFC, the Korean wins (especially since KFC fries are like dead men's fingers).

    Who knows, the New York version might be out of this world, but I get the impression that the obsession with Korean fried chicken over there is a bit of a fad.

  3. You must be huge by now Brennan...smuggled any glasses of red out of restaurants recently?

  4. Mr Billings, I presume? How the crikey? I'm huge indeed, but only when I'm smuggling barrels of the stuff under my shirt. Haven't you retired yet?

  5. Retired? Me? Never! You can't keep an average Copywriter down. Actually we all got made redundant a year or so ago so I'm a dirty freelancer like your good self now. Can't believe they haven't deported you yet...

    Up the Villa! (it was Villa you supported wasn't it...they're a 'football' team aren't they?)

    PS: I told you The Specials would reform...I know it wasn't the 'full' line up but it's close enough. Did they make it out to Dubai?

  6. No Specials, unfortunately, but Rankin' Roger is here all the time. He must come here for the culture. I had no idea about the redundancies - I bet you're glad of that now?

    Incidentally, I recall you being something of a gourmand. Any suggestions of places to eat in Brum these days? I'll be back there later this month. Mr Egg still open?

  7. Mr Egg's still there (I think). Far too expensive for the likes of me though. You could try Simpsons, Turner's or Purnell's

    Personally I always plump for Wetherspoons but then that won't surprise you eh?

  8. It does surprise me. Sounds a little too flash for your dusty, moth-ridden purse! Does have good tramp value, though.

  9. If you order in Bon Chon for lunch better not do it unless you will order for your entire office. i find it ridiculous especially they will say that you reached the minimum amount and after waiting for like 45 minutes and already starving you will receive a call telling you that they can't deliver and the minimum should be DHS150.00 for them to deliver???? Reason is they have to pay salik!!!! Our area is not too far though...

  10. Seems a bit over the top. To be fair, I can think of better things to eat for lunch than Bon Chon.