Carla Meyer

Bonchon’s stellar Korean fried chicken hooks with its crunch

Soy-garlic-coated drumsticks are served at Bonchon.
Soy-garlic-coated drumsticks are served at Bonchon. cmeyer@sacbee.com

Bonchon will ruin other fried chicken for you.

The South Korea-based chain fries its wings to a precise crisp. Then it paints on a sauce – soy-garlic or spicy – that enters the paper-thin skin without weighing it down. Each bite brings an audible crunch, a textural sensation that hooks you as strongly as the flavor does.

The spicy sauce, sweet at first but with a late-blooming and then lasting heat (but without the vinegar bite of Buffalo sauce) is the more dynamic. But its milder soy-garlic compatriot incorporates its garlic element so well that it compensates in depth for what it lacks in punch.

On our three visits to Bonchon’s only local franchise, a 6-month-old spot on Laguna Boulevard in Elk Grove, the chicken was always juicy, never overly greasy. We preferred wings to the bigger drumsticks and chicken-breast strips, because the wings’ smaller size equaled more crunch per piece.

But there is no bad chicken at Bonchon, where each piece is made to order rather than made to sit for long stretches in warming stations (you know who you are, C.S.), only degrees of good chicken. We liked mixing and matching by size and sauce, cleansing our palates between bites with the sweet-sharp pickled daikon Bonchon serves with its chicken.

The daikon and the apparent lack of the egg or flour associated with Southern fried chicken give Bonchon chicken an air of lightness that might be illusory. Because we are not sure about the flour or egg; all we know of the preparation – that the chicken is fried twice, the sauce brushed on – came from a short conversation with a corporate representative at the Elk Grove store when it opened last summer and drew big crowds curious to try the first entry into the Sacramento market of a chain with 200 locations worldwide. No one from corporate responded to our interview requests for this review.

But we have gathered, from the menu’s nutritional information, and the “twice fried,” and common sense, that Bonchon chicken is not for dieters. A small, or 10-piece, order of wings runs 810-900 calories. And do not kid yourself: If you order 10 wings, you are likely to eat 10 wings. There’s a chance you will eat only six or eight if you also order Bonchon’s Parmesan-laden French fries and a beer.

Fried chicken and beer is such a popular combination in Korea that it carries its own name, “chimaek,” for “chicken” and “maekju,” the Korean word for beer. It is a portmanteau. Like Brangelina, without the pending divorce.

The Elk Grove Bonchon, outfitted in the modern minimalism of concrete floors and Edison light bulbs, holds as its main visual focus a bar area with televisions and beer taps.

A cool, crisp beer is almost a mandate, and turns out to be the perfect complement for Bonchon’s spicy, just-out-of-the-fryer chicken. My only quibble was with a server who recommended the kerosene-on-a-campfire pairing of a citrus-y, hoppy Track 7 Panic IPA with our spicy wings and side of red pepper-pert kimchi.

But the friendly, knowledgeable servers were on target in every other regard at Bonchon, a casual but full-service restaurant. Prices ($11.95 for 10 wings, $9.95 for a salad with chicken) run a bit higher than at the fast-casual restaurants that usually populate strip malls like one where this Bonchon sits.

In addition to chicken, Bonchon offers a full Asian-fusion menu, highlighted by crispy fried pot stickers ($9.95 for eight) that come coated in a choice of soy-garlic or spicy sauce. As with the chicken, this coating does enough flavor work to render unnecessary any accompanying dipping sauce.

We also liked the bulgogi entree ($15.95) for its sweet-spicy, tender meat and al-dente vegetables. But bland flour tortillas obscured the ingredients within the spicy-chicken Korean tacos (three for $9.95). The glass noodles in Bonchon’s japchae ($12.95) were oily and heavy. The under-fried octopus dumplings, or takoyaki (six for $5.95), were mostly mush.

Sampling Bonchon’s non-fried-chicken dishes made us wistful for local restaurants (South, Empress Tavern, TableVine, Nido) where the fried chicken or spicy wings are exceptional and there is no quality drop-off from chicken to the rest of the menu.

But Bonchon, frankly, has the farthest to fall.

Bonchon

8246 Laguna Blvd., Elk Grove. 916-684-6105, www.bonchon.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesdays.

Beverage options: Draft and bottled beers. Soju. Soft drinks.

Vegetarian friendly: Not particularly

Gluten-free options: Few

Noise level: Moderate

Ambiance: The design of this strip-mall chain restaurant is utilitarian but pleasant.

Overall

The crisp chicken Bonchon serves is our favorite fried chicken right now. Service is friendly and knowledgeable.

Food

The chicken is four-star quality, but the rest of Bonchon’s Asian-fusion menu is hit and miss.

Service  1/2

Attentive and prompt.

Value

The wings run $11.95 for 10, and are worth it. No dish costs more than $16, and many less than $10 – reasonable for a casual but full-service restaurant in which every dish is made to order.

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