Take air-chilled chicken, marinate it for a day, bread it in seasoned flour and fry it at a low temperature, then let it rest and fry it again — this time at a higher temperature — until golden. Eat immediately.
This not-so-secret recipe is behind what more and more people are dreaming of in Montreal: Korean fried chicken.
The crispy delicacy became popular in the 1960s in Korea as chicken and oil became more affordable. Now KFC — that’s Korean, not Kentucky — is trending around the world.
One of South Korea’s largest fried chicken franchises, Bonchon, had more than 150 locations in 13 countries in 2015; by last year, there were more than 300. In Montreal, the local Mon Ami chain of Korean restaurants now has 12 locations, many of which specialize in fried chicken. But not all Korean fried chicken is created equal.
Shang Chal Park launched Mon Ami in 2014 on Somerled Ave., with recipes and experience from his time spent in the chicken business in Korea and China. It proved so popular that he opened another nearby in 2015, also on Somerled, this one serving all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue. Park’s cousin Chris Oh joined him in opening the third Mon Ami location in 2016, downtown on Ste-Catherine St.
Other Montreal restaurants serving Korean fried chicken include GaNaDaRa on de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., Basak on Guy St., Matjip in Dollard-des-Ormeaux and Hot-Star, whose downtown franchise will soon be joined by a West Island location. A mere block from the original Mon Ami on Somerled, there’s Le K’Bob, which Ko Eunjung opened with her husband in 2017 after moving from Korea in 2015. That makes three Korean restaurants on a short commercial strip of N.D.G.
What’s so special about Korean fried chicken? Some say it’s the chili peppers, but not all Korean fried chicken is spicy. What usually sets it apart is the double-frying technique and ultra-thin batter.
“When you’re eating other fried chicken, your fingers are greasy, but Korean fried chicken is a lot less greasy and tastes more crispy,” says Oh.
At Le K’Bob, Eunjung fries her chicken only once. She finds that if she fries it twice, it shrinks and is less moist. Her loyal customers don’t seem to mind, including Paul Diaconescu, who is now her business partner. She never wanted to franchise, worrying about franchisees lowering quality, but Diaconescu was as obsessed with the quality of the chicken as she was and finally convinced her. Plans are now in the works for expansion.
Eunjung uses more than 10 ingredients in her 12-hour marinade, and her husband cuts the chicken by hand — a process that ensures the skin stays attached and yields juicier meat, she says. Her marinade isn’t spicy, but some of her sauces are. They range from sweet-and-sour soy sauce with tame slivered green onions to a fiery red, sticky-sweet glaze with Korean chili paste. She also imports snowflake powder, a garlicky white powder that’s popular for coating Korean chicken.
Miami-based chef Michael Lewis recently opened Chikin, a kiosk at the food hall Le Cathcart Restaurants et Biergarten, where diners queue for buckets and sandwiches of his crunchy, sweet and spicy chicken.
Lewis worked his way up to chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean-Georges in New York City before opening restaurants for its chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and later opening restaurants in the high-end Zuma chain around the world.
Lewis says he didn’t check out the Korean fried chicken competition in Montreal before setting up shop. Instead, he trusted Alexandre Besnard and Patrick Hétu of A5 Hospitality, the group that curated the food options at Le Cathcart. They introduced themselves at Kyu, a James Beard Award-nominated Miami restaurant co-founded by Lewis, and told him there was nothing like his chicken in Montreal.
Lewis says he doesn’t make traditional Korean fried chicken. “It’s really just my interpretation. I take the best elements of all the fried chicken that I’ve ever had and put them together. It’s closest to Korean fried chicken because of the spices and such, so that’s what I called it.”
He also takes inspiration from his American grandmother’s fried chicken, adding buttermilk to the spicy marinade and a little butter to the gochujang- and Thai chili-based sauce. “And by a little bit of butter, I mean a lot of butter.”
Another trick is letting the chicken rest between fryings for at least half the initial 15- to 20-minute fry time. “You want it to sit so the juices get a chance to relax,” Lewis says. “Then when you do the second fry, there’s plenty of juice still on the inside.”
Despite the growing popularity of Korean fried chicken in Montreal, the restaurant business isn’t easy these days, says Mon Ami’s Oh. “When something is going good, there’s a tendency to open the same styles of restaurants all the time. That’s a growing pain that Montreal is having.
“I have talked to a few franchisers in Ontario, and they’re aiming now at the Montreal and Quebec market,” he says. “Before, because of the French barrier, they weren’t coming to Montreal, but there will be a big competition in the franchise market in Montreal from now on.”
Like Eunjung and Lewis, however, Oh is confident in his product.
“The cost of the food is not low (for the restaurants). And we’re not trying to lower it. We’re aiming for quality. People now, they taste the chicken and they can see the differences right there if the chicken is not juicy enough.”
Let the Korean fried chicken speak for itself.