It’s safe to say that we now live in a Korean fried chicken boomtown.
A very quick search on Yelp in the East Bay revealed over two dozen restaurants where diners love the KFC. This likely doesn’t include the perhaps dozens more that have some form of KFC on the menu but aren’t mentioned in their reviews. These versions of KFC encompass everything from fairly standard bar food to elevated, chef-inspired takes on the form — from an afterthought to full-out fusion.
In Berkeley alone, one can find KFC on top of waffles at the new Berkeley Social Club, as an appetizer or side at Bopshop and Spoon (both owned by Bowl’d), in “buffalo” wing form at Koja Kitchen, and alongside sweet potato fries at Stella Nonna. CRUNCH Korean restaurant downtown serves something called “chicken balls,” which appear to be some sort of Korean chicken nugget hybrid drizzled with a mayo-like sauce.
Venture to Oakland and, of course, options expand. Besides the abundance of offerings up and down Telegraph Avenue — if you like KFC, do yourself a favor and spend more time in this neighborhood — one can find versions of the dish in neighborhoods as far apart as Rockridge (The Golden Squirrel, which also makes KFC buffalo wings) and deep West Oakland (FuseBox, which serves my favorite fancy-ish version). Wingman, a new KFC-focused restaurant from (again) the Bowl’d folks, will be opening soon on College Avenue. The newly-opened new-American pub Seawolf has a KFC sandwich on its eclectic menu. Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant Belly will put Korean fried chicken on a rice bowl and in a tortilla.
This is all to say that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need a New York City-based Korean fried chicken chain.
But we’re getting one anyway — Bonchon is headed to the long-vacant storefront at 2050 Berkeley Way.
Don’t get me wrong. I love ultra crispy, sweet and sticky KFC as the next person. It’s probably my favorite way to eat fried poultry when I’m outside of the South. It’s a great drinking snack, and when done well hits just about every greasy, indulgent food craving I have.
Bonchon certainly has its fans, among them Anthony Bourdain, and has made plenty of those “Best Fried Chicken in [insert city here]” lists. When Eater broke the news earlier this week, its lede read: “Everybody remain calm,” anticipating the kind of fervor that has surrounded the openings of cultish restaurants like the New York chain Halal Guys in San Francisco. (The Berkeley location of Halal Guys still remains in limbo.)
We’ve reached out to the Bonchon team for an opening timeline, but have not heard back as of press time. Not much is going on at the new location, other than the posting of an ABC license application and a new sign.
Bonchon (translation: “my hometown”) has its roots in Busan, South Korea, where its very first location opened in 2002. Its first U.S. location opened in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 2006; shortly thereafter, Bonchon moved its American headquarters to Manhattan.
There are 212 Bonchon locations worldwide, 52 of them in the United States, and three in the Bay Area. The company’s website says it is planning to open 49 additional restaurants, across several countries, in the near future. Its growth shows no signs of slowing.
The Berkeley location will, like its other restaurants, have a menu based around fried wings, drumsticks and boneless “strips,” tossed in either soy-garlic or spicy sauce. Other drinking-friendly Korean and pan-Asian dishes like takoyaki, kimchi pancakes, potstickers and soy-garlic calamari, round out the appetizer offerings. Those wanting a more substantial meal can choose from several familiar Korean entrees like bibimbap, japchae and bulgogi with rice. Or, you know, you can also order french fries and onion rings.
There will be beer to wash it all down.
In other words, Bonchon doesn’t offer a particularly unique menu. It looks much like a louder, less weird Oriental BBQ Chicken Town or a millennial-focused version of Bowl’d. We’ll get more KFC, but it likely won’t be better or different than what we already have, in abundance. The main thing Bonchon brings to the table is the financial backing of a giant food company. (Oh, and calorie counts for each dish.)
I’m guessing Bonchon will be very popular with the student population. Heck, I’d probably go once or twice. But I’d so much have rather seen a locally-owned business move in, whether it served KFC or not. Downtown Berkeley is on the cusp of a dining boom, but much of it is being driven by chains. We’ve now got a Tender Greens and a Sweetgreen and a Blue Bottle to compete with Starbucks, Peet’s and 85 Degrees. Ippudo, another New York import, will open one of these days, and I’d be willing to bet that all of the restaurants that open in Acheson Commons will be of a similar form.
Many of these newer chains actually offer some pretty good food. And they have the capital to stay in business while simultaneously selling entrees for less than $25 and paying their employees good wages. Both of these facts are good things, but I can’t help but wonder how much of the soul of our dining scene is being lost every time a new chain rolls in.
And when the chain isn’t offering anything new, I can’t help but sigh.