Restaurant Reviews

Go for the Fried Chicken at Bonchon and Go Fast

At Bonchon, the combination plate of wings and drums, fried crispy and basted in soy garlic and spicy sauce, gives any other fried chicken joint in the city a run for its money. A small combo order comes with three giant drumsticks and four wings (two drums and two flats), which easily feeds two people, with accompanying sides. The wait is longer than usual for the fried chicken because nothing is dropped until the ticket comes in. No complaints here. Unlike most fast-food spots, Bonchon is an actual restaurant with a hostess stand, modern decor, a full bar and groovy dance-chill tunes in the background.

The Katy location of Bonchon opened in late May at 24437 Katy Freeway in the Suite No. 100 space in the Katy Ranch Crossing Shopping Center, on the south-side feeder of Katy Freeway. This is the first of several locations Bonchon is slated to open in the area, including sites in Pearland and The Woodlands. The first Bonchon restaurant originated in Busan, South Korea, in 2002. Today there are franchised locations all over the world, including the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and in 16 states in the United States.

After we ordered, at least 15 minutes went by before the chicken arrived at the table, piping hot, half of it in a dark, honey-like glow, and the other half with a slightly darker shade of red. When a combination is ordered, a toothpick is placed into one of the spicy pieces to alert you.

Making Korean fried chicken often means using a double-fry technique. Chicken pieces are battered and fried once all the way through, then allowed to rest till they reach room temperature, and are then dropped in oil again for an even crispier finish. The meat on these pieces was moist and tender. There was only a faint saltiness in the meat itself, but the soy-garlic sauce (emphasis on the soy) makes up for that.

For diners in search of that tongue-numbing sensation, spicy is the way to go. However, the level of heat was inconsistent. On one occasion, the spice was just right, leaving a noticeable tingle on the lips. On another visit, the anticipated burn was not there; it was still spicy, but just didn’t deliver the same punch.

All that being said, the fried chicken is best when eaten fresh. There wasn’t an issue with chicken lingering on the table on one occasion. “Man, we should’ve ordered more chicken,” we mumbled while licking the remnants of sauce off our fingers.” On another visit, politeness kept the last piece resting lonely on the plate for well over half the meal. After sitting awhile, the chicken lost its “fry-ness.” All the double-fried crispiness turned into one of General Tso’s (chicken) soldiers left in a buffet tray. So eat it quickly and feel it burn.

Along with wings, drums, tenders and a popcorn variety of fried chicken, Bonchon also offers a wide selection of Korean dishes as well as not-so-Korean dishes. The bulgogi tacos were an example of both. Though the meat is traditionally marinated in a mixture of soy, garlic, sesame oil, onions, ginger, black pepper and sugar for anywhere between two and 24 hours (to tenderize it and enhance its flavor), this bulgogi fell short of a good, long meat bath.

The bulgogi was covered with crisp lettuce, shredded cabbage, bits of red onion and carrots and two generously squeezed sauces that were both unusually creamy and sweet. The buttermilk ranch and spicy mayo melded into one messy, less than savory blanket of cream. Everything was tucked precariously into a toasted flour tortilla and presented in a set of three on a plate that unfortunately was way too small for these taco giants.

As the server lowered the plate onto the table, a liquid ran off the plate (which was the first indication that this might be a no-bueno situation). Said liquid continued to drip off the plate and puddle quietly until it dripped down in between the crack between the two pulled-together tables, onto the sandals and in between the toes. Chalk it up to a rare example of fusion causing more confusion than fabulousness.

On another note, the seasoned french fries, representing the completely non-Korean items on the menu, were perfectly executed. The large order arrived in a wired cone lined with newsprint. The fries were seasoned with Parmesan cheese and garlic, but what made them special was that same “double-fry” technique used on the chicken. Super-crispy on the outside yet soft and light on the inside, these fries had some serious game.

The small side of kimchi was also very good. The server admitted that it was not made in-house, which was unfortunate to hear. Bonchon is a Korean restaurant, right? Oh well, it was delicious and had just the right balance of spice and flavor one would expect in a good kimchi.

On the server’s recommendation, seafood fried rice made its way to the table. (Against my better judgment, I might add. It’s a personal thing. No one makes fried rice like a Chinese restaurant; some places in town, like Mambo’s or Japaneiro’s, make pretty darn good versions, but there’s nothing like the real thing.) The rice was ehhh, just okay. It was topped with a half dozen medium-size shrimp and a handful of tiny bay scallops, chopped red bell peppers, bits of scrambled egg and finished with freshly sliced green onion and cucumber rounds, and the presentation and portion size were nice. The rice itself tasted freshly cooked, though. First rule of making fried rice: Use day-old rice. Second rule of making fried rice: Use day-old rice.

Although it appeared nice and fluffy on the surface, once the contents were tossed, the texture was noticeably off. This is one of those dishes that should never be moist. It was in dire need of more black pepper and soy as well. (The rice made for an excellent “leftover makeover” meal once it became day-old rice at home.)

The bar looks very hip and trendy, with red lantern-like hanging lamps and plenty of comfy barstools with backs. Well stocked with bottles of the usual suspects on the top shelf and an impressive cocktail menu featuring a good variety of craft and domestic beers, eight house cocktails, red, white and rosé wine and a selection of fruit-flavored soju, the bar makes for a great focal point in the restaurant. The chile mango rita and flight of soju were ordered.

Upon arrival, the chile mango rita looked sexy and cool in a playful chile salt-rimmed martini glass, and the flight of soju was presented on a wooden plank. The rita was made with Penasco Plata tequila, mango puree, and sweet and sour, but it didn’t live up to its billing. The mixture was overly sweet, and the chile rim was tasty but never balanced the sweetness in the cocktail.

The flight, however, was another story. Soju literally means “burned alcoholic drink.” It’s a distilled beverage containing ethanol and water. With an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 16.7 percent to 45 percent, soju is dangerously good when delicious fruit flavors are added. The flight of soju came with two-ounce pours of any three flavors available (lychee, strawberry, peach, mango, apple, passion fruit or wildberry); the lychee, apple and peach were chosen for this flight. The smell of each flavored shot was intoxicatingly sweet. We couldn’t pick the best one; they were all winners.

Bonchon is not a fast-casual restaurant. In truth, the wait is long for some really crispy, moist and flavorful chicken. The cost is a bit on the high side, but the lunch menu offers the same amount of those ridiculously addictive fries for $2.50 instead of $6.95 at dinner time. Maybe it was a mistake, but the portion size of both orders on different occasions was generously presented in those wired cones of plenty. Our advice? Scrap the menu and sell fried chicken, french fries and soju all day, every day.

24437 Katy Freeway in Katy, 281-394-9188, Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Chile mango rita $8
Flight of soju (three flavors) $6
Small combo, half and half drums and wings (six wings and three drums) $12.95
House fried rice $10.95 (add $2 for seafood)
French fries (seasoned) $6.95 on regular menu
French fries (seasoned) $2.50 on lunch menu
Side of kimchi $2.95
Korean tacos $10.95 (add $1 for bulgogi)

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Cuc Lam is a freelance food writer for the Houston Press and local pop-up chef. She enjoys teaching cooking classes and hosting dinner parties when she is not writing.