Like a prude high school girl, Kyochon has been nothing but a tease to New York lovers of Korean fried chicken (Kfc). Marred by one delay after another the "original" Kfc chain finally opened its doors in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago. Already having outposts in both coasts (L.A., Bayside and Flushing), the much anticipated opening of the Fifth Ave. location was not well received in the blogosphere. A combination of excessive prices, long waits and tiny wing size resulted in yet another closing; this time for purposes of re-training as reported by Midtown Lunch. As quickly as it had opened, Kyochon had closed its doors again; leaving New York with proverbial "blue balls." So last Friday MW and I decided to experience Kyochon ourselves.
There is perhaps no greater fan of Kyochon than myself. To this day, the best fried chicken I've tasted was from a Kyochon Chicken in Seoul. Yes, Bon Chon and Mad for Chicken are good, as was Bon Bon when it was open, but I was ecstatic when I heard Kyochon finally opened, or rather re-opened. When I arrived at the restaurant I was a bit confused. Was this a fried chicken restaurant or the outside of Studio 54? Employees complete with walkie talkies and clipboards manned the roped off doors and instructed a mostly Asian crowd to form a line outside. Like a scene from a Walmart on Black Friday the crowd became restless for their fried chicken. Fortunately, there was no trampling incident, and those of us in line were treated to takeout menus and complementary Grilled Drumsticks with Hot and Spicy Sauce. As I ate my "drumstick" in two bites, that was more reminiscent of a frogs leg than a chicken leg, I began to worry that all of the initial reports were correct and my hopes for convenient Kfc would be dashed. Unfortunately, the chicken tasted a bit dry and aside from the flavor of the sauce which provided some nice heat and had a faint smoke taste was nothing worth buying. In my opinion this product was Kyochon's attempt to capitalize on the grilled chicken pandemonium that swept the U.S. after KFC launched their grilled version.
Even with the re-training, minor service issues persisted. For example, there seemed to be some confusion when I told the employee working the door that I wanted to dine upstairs. Instead of having me sign my name or giving me a estimated wait time she curiously had a conference with several of her peers and told me there was no reservation policy before she ushered me upstairs to an empty table for two. With the seating issue averted, I sat down and ordered a Stella on draft. I should note here that Kyochon is open late (2 a.m.), which ironically is early for a Korean restaurant, and serves beer, soju and soju cockatails in its upstairs seating. While you can happily drink beer and soju at other Kfc restaurants Third Floor and Mad for Chicken I found Kyochon's selection to be much better.
Even as I write this I'm confused as how one would describe the atmosphere at Kyochon but if pressed would describe it as being a fast food restaurant turned club. The floor level is devoted to take-out orders and aside from a few tables the majority of the seating is upstairs. Upstairs the walls are lined with flat screen televisions playing a mix of pop, hip-hop and R and B music videos. Had I not known better I would have sworn I was inside a Target and not a Kyochon. All of the furniture had a modern touch and a red and white color-scheme persisted all the way to the restrooms which eerily had pictures of people filling cut-out portions of the walls giving off the effect of someone watching over you as you relieved yourself.
I had no problems with the service other than our waiter seemed almost too attentive and robotic. However, this should not be construed as a complaint, but rather an observation compared to the less then attentive service at Mad for Chicken or Third Floor. MW and I decided to order the Signature Drumsticks with Hot and Sweet Sauce, a Sal Sal Chicken Bites with Fruit Salad and a side of Potato Wedges. The Potato Wedges were first to arrive and were brought with four different dipping sauces: Ketchup, Dijon Mustard, Garlic and Jambalya. The potato wedges tasted like a generic frozen variety from any bar. The Dijon Mustard sauce reminded me of Wendy's honey mustard sauce while the Jambalya tasted similar to McDonald's sweet and sour sauce.
The Sal Sal Chicken Bites with Fruit Salad was the most disappointing dish of the night. Kyochon's version of chicken tenders; boneless white-meat strips of chicken were coated in some rice-flour mixture lending a nice crunchy texture then cut into small "bites." However, any additional praise stops there. The Sal Sal bites were dry, and the coating was void of almost any seasoning. Upon ordering this dish I hoped that it would mimic a favorite Chinese dish of mine: Shrimp with Walnuts. Like the Chinese dish, I was hoping the dish would have a salty and crunchy texture that would be elevated by the sweetness of the fruit and brought together by a creamy mayonnaise sauce. Instead the fruit necessary to eat the dry chicken which soaked up a far too watery sauce.
Finally the Signature Drumsticks with Hot and Sweet Sauce arrived with a side of pickled Daikon. The first thing I noticed was the size of the drumsticks. Nearly identical to the drumsticks found at Mad for Chicken or Bon Chon. I was relieved to see that these weren't the puny versions I was given while waiting in line. Next, the chicken came straight from the fryer and was extremely hot temperature wise. I was really happy with this fact and didn't mind the staggered service one bit for fresh chicken. Unlike MW, I didn't find the sauce overpowering and enjoyed the heat and sweetness. Unfortunately both MW and I agreed that the texture of the crust and the moistness of the chicken fell short. The crust didn't seem as crunchy as I've enjoyed at Mad for Chicken and the chicken seemed a bit dry. At least the pickled Daikon was crisp and paired well with chicken.
Overall, I felt that Kyochon still has some issues to iron out but am happy to see it in the Manhattan Kfc scene. With the addition of Bon Chon in the near future, the corner of 32nd street and Fifth Ave. will soon be known as a Kfc mecca boasting four different restaurants serving this signature item. Are the portions small? Yes. Is it expensive for fried chicken? Yes. Does it take a long time to prepare? Yes. But these are facts well-known by lovers of Kfc who are rewarded in turn by some of the most succulent and tasty chicken ever. Only time will tell whether Kyochon can become the Kfc behemoth that it is in Korea and it hopes to be in America. But like a prude high school girl, Kyochon Chicken better put out soon (quality fried chicken that is) or be risk being abandoned by its lovers.
319 5th Ave.
New York, NY 10016
To see all our pics, please click the flickr link.