I seriously thought I knew fried chicken… till I went to Korea. That was when my own notion of what fried chicken actually is(and should be) completely melted away. In short, its fried chicken done with korean sauces and made in a korean way, which, in that description, tells you absolutely nothing. But just know, the internet has gone completely bonkers over it. (If you really want to know what it is, google it)
Since Foodamentals focuses on all things trendy and tasty, we thought it would be a fantastic idea if we put our health on the line and tried to find the absolute best Korean Fried Chicken restaurant in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Yes, sounds like the perfect food challenge.
For this challenge, we’ve assembled a crack team of the most able-bodied, well conditioned lunatics with low blood pressure to help us manhandle this fried chicken challenge. Unfortunately everyone we had in mind were too busy with their fantasy football drafts. So instead, I’ve recruited a B team comprised of chief Kung Fu instructor(and fried chicken connoisseur) Jasan Fujii of the East-West Wing Chun Kung Fu school in Oakland, California. The 2012 Northern California ICMAC Kickboxing Champion, Travis Fong. Lastly(but certainly not least), Gilbert from Alameda. In hindsight, this team would better served as your personal backup in a street fight rather than a crew you go eat fried chicken with. But oh well.
Since there are way too many Korean restaurants who serve fried chicken, for the sake of our hearts, we have to parry the humongous list down. Therefore, to be considered for this challenge, the restaurant must serve Korean fried chicken and only Korean style fried chicken. More importantly, the word chicken must be referenced somewhere in the name of the restaurant. That… basically eliminates a bunch of Korean restaurants in the Bay Area. Which isn’t all that bad as we just ran out of blood pressure medication. But I digress…
With that said, we picked out 4 prime chicken spots from around the Bay Area via a highly rigorous and detailed scoring process in which we consider multiple factors before funneling down our choices. Or… we could have just searched for korean fried chicken on Yelp. Either, way, here are the best korean fried chicken restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area (excluding San Francisco) with one clear cut winner at the number 1 spot.
4) Oriental BBQ Chicken Town/OB Chicken (Oakland)
Oakland is no stranger to stellar Korean food. Up and down Telegraph Avenue, you are bound to find something for whatever you are feeling. Whether you want to get your fill of tofu soup, get totally hammered off of yogurt soju, or gorge yourself with marinated Korean spare ribs, you are more likely to leave Oakland with bullet holes on your hood than hungry.
For a restaurant that can’t seem to figure out what its real name actually is(try Googling its name), Oriental BBQ Chicken Town/OB Town is known for its wacky decor, copious amounts of beer and more importantly, its fried chicken. The best way I can describe the restaurant’s theme is a cross between a garage sale, Yogi Bear’s picnic and Williamsburg, New York. But we aren’t here for its decor. No. No we are not.
Sweet and Spicy
More sweet than spicy, I can definitely see why the local college kids from Berkeley are in love with this place. Of all the chicken we reviewed, OB has the best sauce, doubly hands down. The sauce, more sweet than actually spicy, has a great feel to it and wraps itself around all the naughty edges of the fried chicken. The issue here is that the inside of the chicken is rather dry, but the skin has probably the nicest crunch to it of all the chicken places we reviewed. Frankly, I can’t help but think this saucy chicken would go damn well with a bowl of rice. No doubt its the inner Taiwanese in me saying that.
Garlic & Soy Sauce
Compared to the sweet and spicy chicken, the soy and garlic chicken is a bit understated when it comes to taste. Having said that, you can really taste the chicken. Unfortunately, that chicken still comes up a bit on the dry side so feel free to go to town with a bottle of Sriracha sauce. As said before, the outer texture of OB’s chicken is bar-none, the best chicken we’ve eaten. Such a nice crunch to it that we are not ashamed to say we’ve had thoughts of rubbing this chicken against our face.(JK)
3) 99 Chicken (Santa Clara)
99 Chicken is the Southwest Airlines of the Korean Fried Chicken scene. This no-frills joint with an interior decor that looks like a budget “Asianized” version of Duck Dynasty, these guys knows exactly who they are catering to – the fried chicken connoisseur. If you aren’t here for the chicken, then there is an Olive Garden right down the street.
The walls are adorn with random diners that have made the pilgrimage out to Santa Clara. At a glance, the neighboring students from Santa Clara University have left their mark on the wall with their sauce covered faces. Additional points for the self serve kimchi bar right next to the chicken. As you can see below, we helped ourselves to the unlimited pickled radishes and broccoli. Don’t know what we were thinking, but we tend to gravitate to all things “free.”
You know its going to be a good day when your fried chicken comes with a side of plastic gloves. Big ups to 99 chicken for coming armed and dangerous with the gloves. It really harkens back to my days of eating fried chicken in Asia as it seems that every KFC meal in Taiwan comes with a side of gloves. I mean, its such a brilliant idea. Eat delicious chicken while keeping your fingers oil free so that you can grab that remote without pissing off your wife. Brilliant.
Spicy Sauce Chicken
The fried chicken team raved about the “flavor profile,” whatever that means. I, myself, liked the spiciness of the sauce as it was closer to a mild flame rather than a toilet-rattling spicy that was expected. If I could designate one word to describe this sauce it would be “thick.” Yes, these bad boys are thicker than a tub of chocolate jello pudding. The beauty of the chicken here at 99 Chicken is that every single piece is incredibly crispy and crunchy. However, there is a weird “plastic-y” taste that lingers from the sauce, possibly due to the copious amount of ketchup used to create this sauce. That taste definitely didn’t come from the gloves… right?
The hard part about doing these challenges is that it is pretty difficult to do an apples to apples comparison. More apt, it becomes sort of an apples to persimmons conundrum since there is no guarantee that every chicken place has the same sauce. Therefore, since 99 Chicken doesn’t have Soy & Garlic as an option, we’ve opted to go for the house “sauce” chicken as part of our review.
Surprisingly, even though these look like naked wings, the sauce chicken turned out to be our favorite of the two. The sauce really digs into the chicken, making eat bite semi-sweet but all in all, finger lickin’ good(I smell a lawsuit coming on). I can honestly say, this is probably one of the best sauces we’ve tried. The beauty of 99 Chicken is that you can definitely tell that these pieces of chicken are twice fried, making for a true Korean fried chicken experience. Additionally, either there’s a lot of hormones or the chicken used are on protein shakes, but the chicken pieces here were the biggest of all the chicken we review. BAM!
2) COCO Chicken (Fremont)
Tucked away in a strip mall in Fremont, COCO Chicken is one of those places that is so secret, they don’t even have a website. But that is what makes COCO Chicken so good, it has the element of finding a hidden oasis that is only available to people in the know coupled with some really fantastic chicken.
Similar to 99 Chicken, COCO Chicken is definitely no-frills. The kitchen is situated next to the so-called” dining room” with nothing separating the two. As a diner, you get to see the magic happen from the comforts of your own seat. Having said that, that also means you are going to be feeling the heat from the kitchen. Nothing like a sweaty back to go with your fried chicken ecstasy.
At first bite, you really really really taste the garlic. Probably the most garlicky, soy garlic chicken we ate thus far. At a glance, the chicken portions are very generous and even a team of 4 guys had trouble polishing it all off. The difference in the chicken here is that they are single fried, so you don’t have a lot of the heavy breading from the other places. The chicken isn’t going to be as crunchy as the other joints, but they make it up with superior chicken quality and prep methods. Probably the best soy garlic sauce we ate hands down.
If there was a downside to Coco Chicken is that the sauce feels like an afterthought. For instance, while the Honey Mustard chicken is spectacular in its own right, the fact that the sauce is thrown onto the chicken rather than “fried into” the chicken is a bit disappointing. Not to say that the chicken isn’t good, but it would be nice if the taste of the sauce permeated the entire chicken rather than the outside.
None the less, the overall taste of the honey mustard chicken reminds me of biting into a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget in.. honey mustard sauce. The beauty of this is that, unlike OB, the chicken is not dry one bit. Despite the honey mustard sauce seeming more like a saucy dip, this is still one solid honey mustard sauce and chicken.
Sweet and Hot
In short, I like all the sauces and I very much like the quality of Coco Chicken’s… chicken. Truth be told, I sound like a broken record, but the chicken is very very very well fried, probably the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. That being the case, the added benefit to Coco is the fact that there isn’t a time where you feel like you are biting into a bag of oil, you know you are eating tender white meat chicken in every bite. I can’t say that for all the other restaurants, but certainly that very fact alone makes Coco Chicken worthy of the number 2 spot in this countdown.
5010 Mowry Ave, Fremont, CA 94538
Tel (510) 494-0900
1) Vons Chicken (Santa Clara)
You know that feeling that you get when you show up to some place with low expectations but that something ends up blowing your f’en mind? Vons Chicken is that something.
With only 108 Yelp reviews(as of 9.20.15), non-sauced Chicken and the fact that it was relatively new, the Foodamentals team wasn’t quite sure what to make of this place. In fact, we weren’t even sure whether we should add Vons Chicken to the challenge given that the majority of its menu was grilled chicken rather than fried chicken. Despite coming to Vons right after we’ve just eaten at 99 Chicken(and an impending fantasty football draft in 1 hour), in the end, it was all worth it as we proudly declare that Vons Chicken is the best Korean Fried Chicken in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read on to discover why.
First the decor. By far, this is the nicest Korean Fried Chicken place of all. The clean white table tops, heavy air conditioning and the uniformed staff gives off the impression that this restaurant would feel right at home at a mall in Singapore just as much as it does in Santa Clara. Hands down, this place is also the ambience champion of the Korean Fried Chicken challenge.
Crunchy Fried Chicken
At first glance, the chicken here doesn’t look anything like Korean Fried Chicken we’ve had at other places. For starters, there isn’t the typical goopy sweet/spicy sauce coating on the outside of the chicken. Additionally, there wasn’t any radishes or kimchi to go along with the chicken. But that is fine, this place is about the chicken and that part, Vons Chicken does not disappoint.
The chicken here is double fried with rice flour, giving it the look of a massive looking chunk of fried deliciousness. But because its coated so heavily with rice flour, the crunchiness factor is off the CHAIN. One bite of this chicken and your mouth will have crossed two chasms of texture explosiveness with the crunchiness and tenderness of the juiciest pieces of chicken in the Northern Hemisphere.
Saying that the chicken here is juicy is like saying there is trickle of water at Niagara Falls. It’s flavorful, fresh and best of all, piping hot(but not burn the roof of your mouth so there is a flap of skin hanging off hot). Like a good steak, no sauce is touching this masterpiece.
Crispy Fried Chicken(Hot)
Don’t let the lack of spicy sauce fool you, this shit is fuego! The key difference here is that the hotness is built into the chicken, meaning that the spice exists underneath the fried outer exterior. More importantly, the spicy chicken has a heat that slowly creeps up and smacks you upside the face just when you are not expecting it. If our budget allowed for it, we would have awarded this Crispy Fried Chicken from Vons Chicken to be the best overall chicken in all the land. But sadly, we spent our last marketing dollars on a Jamarcus Russell bobble head doll.
If you couldn’t tell, we absolutely love this place. If Vons Chicken had a t-shirt, we would have worn it to our high school prom. The mix of quality, cleanliness and excellent prices will easily draw us back to this place over and over again.
So if you are deciding what to eat tonight, Vons Chicken would be it. I mean, at the end of the day, chicken is pretty low in calories right?
Gangnam Chicken, San Mateo
While there isn’t anything particular amazing or memorable about Gangnam Chicken, I give it points because of its location. The lack of Korean restaurants in the Peninsula makes Gangnam Chicken the defacto regional winner when it comes to Korean Fried Chicken. Therefore, if you don’t have any other places to eat and you are craving some Korean Fried Chicken, then its worth coming here. If not, make the trek down to Santa Clara and hit up Vons Chicken. You won’t regret it.
213 E 3rd Ave, San Mateo, CA 94401
Big thanks to the following guys for helping out with this. Be on the look out for more food challenges coming your way. Might as well take advantage of our reasonably fast metabolism while we still have it.