Korean fried chicken infuses an American classic with a bit of Seoul.
1954 S. Dobson Rd., Mesa
Like Darwin’s blue-footed Galápagos boobies, fried chicken evolved into something special and distinct after it was introduced to the Korean peninsula by American servicemen in the 1950s. Though double-fried, Korean fried chicken features a light, ethereal crust, often due to rice flour in the batter, which resists grease. At Korean pub Drunken Tiger, chef/owner Justin Park plates up made-to-order, buttermilk-brined Korean fried chicken ($8.99-$15.99, pictured) for his dinner and late-night customers. Favoring wings and juicy dark meat, he dredges the fowl in batter then deep-fries it in soybean oil until crispy. Park offers a medley of sauces to fill the crunchy nooks, from the popular sweet-and-sour Korean red with peanuts to the red-hot fire sauce to the Parmesan garlic – for the “non-adventurous people.”
3961 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
If you don’t want to commit to a whole plate of KFC, CRUjiente Tacos offers an “explosive New World style” Korean fried chicken taco ($4.50). Executive chef Rich Hinojosa double-fries the marinated and flour-coated chicken thigh meat to achieve a thin, brittle exterior, and then pairs it with compressed cabbage tossed with vinegar and fish sauce to lend a sour kimchi funk. The taco sports dabs of chile and garlic-laden, fermented gochujang sauce and green onion-based mojo de cebollin, topped with slices of radish and sprigs of cilantro. Biting into this taco yields a full range of tastes and textures: sweet and salty, tart and spicy, crisp and tender. “It’s a powerhouse taco,” Hinojosa says.
1933 W. Main St., Mesa
Behind the modest strip mall storefront, you’ll find a feast of KFC in traditional crispy, sweet and spicy, and seasoned soy-garlic flavors. Owner Sungchul Jo offers wings ($8.99-$9.99) and whole chickens ($15.99-$17.99) cut into pieces, breaded in flour and cornstarch and then plunged into the deep fryer, emerging crusty on the outside (think fried corn flakes), moist inside and packed with juicy fried chicken flavor. The house-made sauces are top-notch, especially Jo’s sweet and spicy combo speckled with sesame seeds and lit with chile. It sinks into the flaky crust, making the chicken slightly pliable but still crunchy. Also along for the ride: cubes of pungent pickled daikon radishes and shredded cabbage salad.