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Bonchon: the other KFC

We’re talking fried chicken chain, a giant one, Korean-style.

Bibimbap hotpot, stuffed mainly with interesting veggies.
Bibimbap hotpot, stuffed mainly with interesting veggies.

You know it’s corporate from the come-ons they have on the wall. “Handcrafted taste and flavor.” “Amazing experiences make for unforgettable moments.” “Every handcrafted piece of Bonchon chicken starts your experience.” I get it. Terms like “handcrafted” come straight from a boardroom meeting. “Try a taste sensation like no other. Because it’s not just fried chicken. It’s Bonchon.”

Place

Bonchon

1420 East Plaza Boulevard Suite D-04, San Diego

Neighbor Kevin and I are standing in front of this strip mall place in National City. “What’s real,” says Kevin, “is the flavors.” This is how come we’re here. Kevin was up in these parts last week, and chanced in for a lunchtime snack (mainly because he’s basically mean like me, and noticed they had lunch specials at pretty darned good prices, mainly around $2 off the regular charges). “I had the tacos.”

“Korean tacos?”

Takoyaki, “Octopus balls,” sweet and filling.

“Not sure what’s Korean about them, except the flavoring. I had the chicken. Kind of soy, garlicky, crunchy. Could’ve had the bulgogi, like marinated ribeye. But the chicken tasted like a spicy ranch. Eleven bucks for two. Again, can’t say what was exactly Korean about it, but I liked them.”

“But that’s the question,” I say. “What is a Korean flavor?”

Two minutes later, Jaren, the masked gal, shows us to a table and drops a couple of menus. “We still have lunch specials,” she says. And sure enough, at the top is the specials box. “Monday to Friday, 11:30 am - 6 pm,” it says.

“Can I ask a question?” I say. “Are you guys like a mom and pop, or a chain?”

“Uh, Well, we only have one other place in San Diego, on Convoy. But also some other places, in, like, California…”

“Uh huh.”

Jaren brings lunch. “Bonchon” means “My Hometown.”

“And around the United States…like 110 franchises.”

“Okay.”

“And around Asia. The Philippines alone has 189 locations…”

Jumping Jehoshaphat! So I guess the answer is a resounding yes: we’re talking fried chicken chain, a giant one, Korean-style. And now that I’m listening, all the music coming out over the sound system has to be K-Pop. Kinda over-wrought formula emotions — but, gotta hand it to them, executed perfectly. They’re on the screens everywhere too. And now this chain is tweaking KFC with their own soy-and-garlic flavored KFC — Korean Fried Chicken It’s a full-on invasion. No wonder North Korea is in a pout over its little brother’s success.

“Decided?” asks Jaren.

I know Kevin is going to decide in 30 seconds max. Marine training.

The menu presents a simplified Korean lineup. Korean-lite. But choosing is still quite complicated. For starters, KFC. Under lunch specials, for eight wings and a side of, say, fries (or pickled radish or Cole slaw or steamed rice), you’d pay $10.95. A lunchtime plate of bibimbap (which is traditionally a mix of cooked rice and bottom-burned rice, plus sautéed veggies, or kimchi, or gochujang (chili pepper paste), and probably an egg, plus slices of beef or chicken chunks, costs $11.95 (normally $12-15). Two Korean-flavored tacos look to be the cheapest deal at $8.95 for two. Price differences seem to be dropping off, so I decide to migrate to the main menu. We quickly agree on the two $7 starters: the Japanese dish of takoyaki “octopus balls,” which are savory fried octopus dumplings, and shrimp shumai, dumplings in a honey Dijon dressing. (We could have had them fried, but we ask for steamed. More trad., Kevin says.) Both are nice and squishy and kinda filling in their own right. But natch, we have to go on to bigger and better and more expensive.

Steamed shrimp shumai.

And that means the full-on hot stone-pot bowl of spicy chicken bibimbap ($13.95). “Be very careful,” says Jaren. “The stone bowl is hot-hot, and stays hot-hot.” She’s right, but boy, this is worth every penny, just to even look at it. A multi-colored pile of sauce-mixed chicken on top of tubular rice cakes, veggies, seaweed, egg, kimchi-flavored bean sprouts, quinoa, and of course rice. There’s salad lettuce in there too, as well as tons of sautéed shrooms, scarlet carrot strips and black-green nori — seaweed. In fact, you can taste the coppery-but-pleasant overtone of seaweed all through this dish. And it has a kind of comfort food effect, so you discover different tastes, hot to the very end. A cool bottle of Space Dust IPA (about six bucks) cools your mouth off.

Our one mistake? We ordered one more dish, bull (fire) dak (spicy chicken) — and this time, they really mean it — stir fried with rice cakes, under a blizzard of mozzarella cheese. I mean, it’s good. We just didn’t need that much, and at $14.95, it strained the budget. Except, of course, we can and do split it up and take it home.

We both waddle out. “Too much!” says Kevin, “but they certainly don’t short you. No wonder South Korea’s taking over the world. I almost got posted there. Marine.” He stops. “Oh, yeah. Talking of Marines, last time, you called me an ex-Marine.”

“So?” I say.

He looks me fiercely in the eye. “There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine! Oorah!”

  • The Place: Bonchon, 1420 East Plaza Boulevard, Suite D-04, National City, 619-245-2618
  • Hours: 11am-9pm daily (till 8:30pm Sunday)
  • Prices: Lunch special, 8 wings, side of fries (or pickled radish, Cole slaw, or steamed rice), $10.95; bibimbap (which is traditionally a mix of cooked rice and bottom-burned rice, plus sautéed veggies, or kimchi, or gochujang (chili pepper paste), egg, beef or chicken, $11.95; two Korean tacos, $8.95; Takoyaki “octopus balls,” octopus dumplings, $6.95; shrimp shumai (dumplings in honey Dijon dressing), $6.95; hot stone pot spicy chicken bibimbap, $13.95; bull dak spicy chicken, $14.95
  • Bus: 929
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Highland and E 12th
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“People have been coming in for years. They know what they like.”
Bibimbap hotpot, stuffed mainly with interesting veggies.
Bibimbap hotpot, stuffed mainly with interesting veggies.

You know it’s corporate from the come-ons they have on the wall. “Handcrafted taste and flavor.” “Amazing experiences make for unforgettable moments.” “Every handcrafted piece of Bonchon chicken starts your experience.” I get it. Terms like “handcrafted” come straight from a boardroom meeting. “Try a taste sensation like no other. Because it’s not just fried chicken. It’s Bonchon.”

Place

Bonchon

1420 East Plaza Boulevard Suite D-04, San Diego

Neighbor Kevin and I are standing in front of this strip mall place in National City. “What’s real,” says Kevin, “is the flavors.” This is how come we’re here. Kevin was up in these parts last week, and chanced in for a lunchtime snack (mainly because he’s basically mean like me, and noticed they had lunch specials at pretty darned good prices, mainly around $2 off the regular charges). “I had the tacos.”

“Korean tacos?”

Takoyaki, “Octopus balls,” sweet and filling.

“Not sure what’s Korean about them, except the flavoring. I had the chicken. Kind of soy, garlicky, crunchy. Could’ve had the bulgogi, like marinated ribeye. But the chicken tasted like a spicy ranch. Eleven bucks for two. Again, can’t say what was exactly Korean about it, but I liked them.”

“But that’s the question,” I say. “What is a Korean flavor?”

Two minutes later, Jaren, the masked gal, shows us to a table and drops a couple of menus. “We still have lunch specials,” she says. And sure enough, at the top is the specials box. “Monday to Friday, 11:30 am - 6 pm,” it says.

“Can I ask a question?” I say. “Are you guys like a mom and pop, or a chain?”

“Uh, Well, we only have one other place in San Diego, on Convoy. But also some other places, in, like, California…”

“Uh huh.”

Jaren brings lunch. “Bonchon” means “My Hometown.”

“And around the United States…like 110 franchises.”

“Okay.”

“And around Asia. The Philippines alone has 189 locations…”

Jumping Jehoshaphat! So I guess the answer is a resounding yes: we’re talking fried chicken chain, a giant one, Korean-style. And now that I’m listening, all the music coming out over the sound system has to be K-Pop. Kinda over-wrought formula emotions — but, gotta hand it to them, executed perfectly. They’re on the screens everywhere too. And now this chain is tweaking KFC with their own soy-and-garlic flavored KFC — Korean Fried Chicken It’s a full-on invasion. No wonder North Korea is in a pout over its little brother’s success.

“Decided?” asks Jaren.

I know Kevin is going to decide in 30 seconds max. Marine training.

The menu presents a simplified Korean lineup. Korean-lite. But choosing is still quite complicated. For starters, KFC. Under lunch specials, for eight wings and a side of, say, fries (or pickled radish or Cole slaw or steamed rice), you’d pay $10.95. A lunchtime plate of bibimbap (which is traditionally a mix of cooked rice and bottom-burned rice, plus sautéed veggies, or kimchi, or gochujang (chili pepper paste), and probably an egg, plus slices of beef or chicken chunks, costs $11.95 (normally $12-15). Two Korean-flavored tacos look to be the cheapest deal at $8.95 for two. Price differences seem to be dropping off, so I decide to migrate to the main menu. We quickly agree on the two $7 starters: the Japanese dish of takoyaki “octopus balls,” which are savory fried octopus dumplings, and shrimp shumai, dumplings in a honey Dijon dressing. (We could have had them fried, but we ask for steamed. More trad., Kevin says.) Both are nice and squishy and kinda filling in their own right. But natch, we have to go on to bigger and better and more expensive.

Steamed shrimp shumai.

And that means the full-on hot stone-pot bowl of spicy chicken bibimbap ($13.95). “Be very careful,” says Jaren. “The stone bowl is hot-hot, and stays hot-hot.” She’s right, but boy, this is worth every penny, just to even look at it. A multi-colored pile of sauce-mixed chicken on top of tubular rice cakes, veggies, seaweed, egg, kimchi-flavored bean sprouts, quinoa, and of course rice. There’s salad lettuce in there too, as well as tons of sautéed shrooms, scarlet carrot strips and black-green nori — seaweed. In fact, you can taste the coppery-but-pleasant overtone of seaweed all through this dish. And it has a kind of comfort food effect, so you discover different tastes, hot to the very end. A cool bottle of Space Dust IPA (about six bucks) cools your mouth off.

Our one mistake? We ordered one more dish, bull (fire) dak (spicy chicken) — and this time, they really mean it — stir fried with rice cakes, under a blizzard of mozzarella cheese. I mean, it’s good. We just didn’t need that much, and at $14.95, it strained the budget. Except, of course, we can and do split it up and take it home.

We both waddle out. “Too much!” says Kevin, “but they certainly don’t short you. No wonder South Korea’s taking over the world. I almost got posted there. Marine.” He stops. “Oh, yeah. Talking of Marines, last time, you called me an ex-Marine.”

“So?” I say.

He looks me fiercely in the eye. “There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine! Oorah!”

  • The Place: Bonchon, 1420 East Plaza Boulevard, Suite D-04, National City, 619-245-2618
  • Hours: 11am-9pm daily (till 8:30pm Sunday)
  • Prices: Lunch special, 8 wings, side of fries (or pickled radish, Cole slaw, or steamed rice), $10.95; bibimbap (which is traditionally a mix of cooked rice and bottom-burned rice, plus sautéed veggies, or kimchi, or gochujang (chili pepper paste), egg, beef or chicken, $11.95; two Korean tacos, $8.95; Takoyaki “octopus balls,” octopus dumplings, $6.95; shrimp shumai (dumplings in honey Dijon dressing), $6.95; hot stone pot spicy chicken bibimbap, $13.95; bull dak spicy chicken, $14.95
  • Bus: 929
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Highland and E 12th
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