Kyochon and Bon Chon
By OLIVER STRAND
Published: June 1, 2010
THE crisp, tawny pleasures of Korean-style fried chicken aren’t new to New York. But this year, what had been a low-frequency contest between two chains based in South Korea, with a few local branches, intensified as each opened a flagship within a few months and a few Midtown blocks of each other.
Let Pinkberry and Red Mango cede the stage for the city’s newest rivalry: Bon Chon versus Kyochon.
First, what’s at stake. Both specialize in the same delicacy, namely wings, drumsticks or slivers of breast (wings work best) that are fried twice and lacquered with a thin layer of your choice of sauce (the spicier the better) that clings tightly to the skin. They’re like Buffalo wings after a school year abroad, the familiar transformed into something more confident and alluring.
Both places charge about the same. Wings come in orders of 6 ($7), 10 ($11) and 20 ($20) at Bon Chon, 207 West 38th Street, Midtown, (212) 221-3339, bonchon.com. They arrive in orders of 5 ($5.99), 10 ($9.99) and 20 ($17.99) atKyochon, 319 Fifth Avenue (East 32nd Street), Midtown, (212) 725-9292, kyochon.com.
Both raise the prices at night, when they dim the lights, blast the music, bring in waiters and push the alcohol. (More on that below.)
And both offer other dishes, which were almost always terrible: wan salads, dense dumplings, tired zucchini fries. Even if there are a few exceptions — at Bon Chon, the scallion pancake ($10) is quite good, while at Kyochon, the bi bim bap rice ball ($3.99) has a nice flavor despite the dryness of the minced bulgogi chicken stuffing — you’d do better to stick with the wings. And if the wings at Bon Chon and Kyochon are similar, they are not the same. One is clearly superior ... depending on the time of day.
Grabbing lunch? Head to Bon Chon on West 38th Street (the only one in New York owned directly by the company’s president). Out at night? Then it’s Kyochon on Fifth Avenue.
Bon Chon shines when the sun does: the garlic-and-soy wings are crispy and tangy, while the spicier version has a subtle heat that sneaks up on you at about the third wing. They’re made fresh, which means you cool your heels for about 20 minutes before you eat.
The food at Kyochon arrives suspiciously quickly during the midday rush. (And in an alarming number of disposable plastic containers, even when you order in: the wings are in paper boxes, but almost everything else travels from the first to second floor in vessels that could make it through a daylong picnic.) The wings aren’t bad, just a little off: the honey is too sweet, the spicy isn’t spicy enough, and they’re all a bit soggy.
At night, Bon Chon stays the course: same food, though most dishes cost $2 more. It feels ghostly without the Times Square lunch crowd, men with their ties tucked into their shirts. (The Bon Chon on John Street in the Financial District is the opposite — quiet during the day, it comes alive at night.)
Kyochon, on the other hand, becomes an entirely different experience: a host standing at what had seemed like a useless lectern at lunch directs you up the sweeping glass staircase past a wall of flat-screen TV’s blasting videos (oldish Black Eyed Peas, newish La Roux), while waiters cross the packed room with trays of shot glasses filled with mango soju. Earlier, it was a fast-food joint. Now, Kyochon is the party you hit before karaoke.
At night, Kyochon raises its prices a few dollars, depending on the dish. And the wings ($17.99 for 15 or $24.99 for 25) are measurably better. After an appropriate cocktail-length wait, they arrive in two neat stacks. They’re crisper, spicier and sharper, and parry the high-proof wallop of a glass of soju ($15 a bottle).
It’s bewildering: the wings — middling during the day — aren’t just good at night, they’re great.
Kyochon, which has more than 1,000 locations worldwide, invested $2 million in the flamboyant, sleek design of this location, a sign it wants to take Manhattan. (It wasn’t a smooth introduction, and shortly after opening in March it closed to retrain the staff.) Kyochon needs to keep on its toes. A Bon Chon franchise is under construction on the same block, and should be double-frying by this summer.