East of Main Street, Northern Boulevard becomes the world’s longest Korean strip mall, extending all the way to Bayside. This territory has long been an incubator for small Korean restaurants, harboring maki makers, noodle specialists, fresh tofu parlors, mung porridge spots, and Christian-themed bakeries.
Latest to arrive is the Korean chicken joint. Inspired by American fried-chicken franchises, this type of establishment didn’t appear in Korea until the 1990s, and only recently touched down here. There are currently four in hot competition between 150th and 160th streets. With their cartoonish logos and uncomfortable seating, you might think these places peddle fast food, but the opposite is true: There are no stockpiles of fried chicken. Every order is painstakingly made from scratch, which often entails a 30-minute wait.
The logo of Cheogajip is a chicken wearing an aviator’s cap waving a fried chicken leg, and the official American name is Pizza and Chicken Love Letter. Unlike most fast-food franchises, beer is an important feature of the menu, and one employee spends most of his time ferrying pitchers of Hite to the thronged tables. There’s no pizza yet, but three types of chicken are offered in 14-item boxes of small mixed parts. Each order comes with sweet-pickled white radish. Hot chicken ($14.99) and spicy chicken ($15.99) are difficult to distinguish—both are swabbed with sticky sweet sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. C-plus
Kyedong Chicken occupies a darker and more somber space, decorated with murky sepia photos. You can order all wings, all drumsticks, or a whole chicken in a choice of two flavors: soy sauce and hot. The six drumsticks in the medium order ($12) are amazingly large, and the lightly coated skin has been rendered supremely crisp and ungreasy. While “soy” is woefully sugary and tastes nothing like soy, “hot” is right on the money, with little flecks of chile in the breading. Alongside, you get the same white radishes and a free can of soda sticking like a chimney out of the proprietary red box, which looks something like a suburban ranch house. B-plus
When I first walked by KyoChon, it hadn’t opened yet, and a trio of employees in big-headed chick costumes danced frantically outside. A few days later, the hubbub had subsided, and we ate our poultry at one of the outdoor tables. While lacking in salt, the plain whole chicken (again called “soy”) was dissected into 24 small, crisp pieces. It was the best we had at any place on the strip. The “spicy” drumsticks were way hot, but also way sugary. Oddest of all—the coleslaw came laced with vanilla, or as a friend described it: “Like ice cream melted on cabbage.” A-minus
When we walked into Bon Chon, we thought we had the wrong place. The décor was pure cocktail lounge, with black tables trimmed in white and ringed by plush, high-backed chairs. The menu offers a wine list! While our crew loved the spice-coated fries, we were unimpressed by “sauerkraut sausage with caviar sauce” (don’t ask). The flesh in the “soy” chicken drumsticks (10 for $17.95) was light and fluffy, but it left our lips and fingers greasy. They were accompanied by the crunchiest radishes we’d tried, and an iceberg salad weirdly dressed with Thousand Island dressing, like a trip back to the 1950s. B