Eight years ago a quartet of Korean fried chicken chains hit Flushing's Northern Boulevard like a bevy of crazy Colonel Sanderses. Sporting colorful, fast-food decor, their spare menus featured fried chicken — mainly drumsticks and wings — in two flavors, a pair of austere cabbage and daikon slaws, one oddly flavored with vanilla, and little else. Emphasizing the healthful qualities of freshly fried chicken (huh?), and boasting a sugary glaze that crackled when you bit into it, the birds were enormous, with drumsticks that might have doubled as baseball bats. These places also bragged that they fried every batch to order and warned it would take 20 minutes minimum to get your poultry. This was not fast food!
Though American fried chicken was introduced to Korea by American GI's during the Korean War, these franchises originated in Seoul in the 1990s. Oh yeah, and one of the chains combined aspects of a German beer garden with the sugary fried chicken concept.
A couple of years later, as these Korean chains were eyeing locations in Manhattan's Koreatown, a maverick, home-grown chicken restaurant in the same style appeared on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, right on the border of Jackson Heights and Woodside. It was emphatically not located in a Korean neighborhood. The place was called UFC, which turned out to stand for "Unidentified Flying Chickens," displaying a definite lack of the earnestness that slightly marred the other Korean fried chicken joints. And the bird was better, too, though the pieces were not as large. The playful logo showed a chick popping out of a flying saucer.
Now, six years down the road, a branch of UFC has magically appeared on Third Avenue in the East Village. The place has big chalkboards along one wall, upon which incarnations of the flying-saucer chick — now all grown up and wearing leather — are limned. There's a bar up front with lots of craft beers, and comfortable seating in a wood-clad rear area.
[Beef bulgogi "burger"]
The menu is roughly comparable to the original place, offering chicken in four flavors, three mayo-based dipping sauces, regular and white-sweet-potato fries (the latter a bit dry), the core white slaws with a few salad additions, and a handful of dishes that represent other aspects of Korean cuisine. There is, for example, a so-called beef bulgogi burger ($14 with regular fries, $16 with sweet-potato fries). Why "so called"? Well, the thing is really just a bun with coarsely shredded beef bulgogi on it, which doesn't qualify as a burger, but is more of a bulgogi sandwich. It also sports caramelized onions and a runny egg on top of the meat. It's great. Two other burgers feature pork bulgogi, a chicken cutlet, and a normal beef patty with bacon.
The menu, which will apparently be expanding in the future, also features such random elements as a green salad, fried shrimp appetizer ("too salty," said a companion), sliders, and pork and beef bulgogi served with the classic lettuce accompaniment. But what about the fried chicken, you wonder? The chicken — an assortment of wings and drumsticks — was delivered after about 20 minutes, piping hot and geometrically arranged on the plate. (Whole and half chickens are also available.) Of the four flavors (Soy Garlic, Hot, Sweet and Spicy, BBQ Mustard), we tried the first and the last. The first was quite splendid, with just the right amount of soy neutralizing the sweetness somewhat. The garlic was not out front, but subtle and downplayed.
The BBQ Mustard, however, was not very mustardy, and the flavor was marred by a whiff of liquid smoke. Whether you like this version of Korean fried chicken will depend on whether you tolerate liquid smoke or not, which must have been present in the barbecue sauce that the pieces were coated with. I always find it disturbing and artificial tasting — even though wood is burned in the preparation of the chemical, allowing the manufacturers to call it "natural."
BBQ Mustard flavor aside, I'd go again to UFC in an instant, and wonder what other dishes will be made available in the future. One look at the online menu for the original branch suggests they might include a chicken parm panini and a Caesar salad. So the biker chick might be going Italian?
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