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Pelicana Is the Finest Korean Fried Chicken in New York

The crispy bird import tastes just as good in K-Town as it does in Seoul

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Pelicana’s signature fried chicken, coated with sweet-and-sour, gochujang-based sauce
Photo: Pelicana / Facebook

“No one eats Pelicana chicken in Korea anymore,” my mom said, surprised when I raved about Pelicana, one of the biggest fried chicken chains in Korea that opened its first location in Manhattan recently. “There are so many fried chicken chains here. Pelicana is like a dying brand in Korea now,” my mom said as I continued to praise Pelicana’s fried chicken. But despite my mom’s negative insights about the future of the chain in Korea, Pelicana’s entrance into Manhattan is still a big deal. Located on the third floor of Food Gallery 32, a food court in the heart of K-town at 11 West 32nd St., between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, it’s the best version of Korean fried chicken that New Yorkers can probably find outside of Korea.

KFC has gone mainstream in American food world. I am not talking about Colonel Sanders; I am talking about Korean fried chicken. Its signature sweet-and-sour sauce, made with Korean spices like gochujang, makes KFC stand strongly in the fierce fried chicken competition in America. Famous Korean fried chicken chains, like BBQ Olive Chicken and BonChon, have opened multiple locations throughout New York City, and local chains like Turntable have made a killing, too. Pelicana is the latest newcomer to KFC family in the crowded K-town neighborhood — but it has one of the longest histories of any chain in Korea.

Pelicana has been one of the most popular fried chicken chains in Korea since 1982.
Photo: Pelicana / Facebook

Established in 1982, Pelicana was born from the idea of delivering clean-packaged fried chicken. Back in the ‘80s in Korea, there were not many foods available for delivery. During that time, rotisserie chicken, so-called “tong-dak,” was what Koreans knew and wanted, and it was typically sold from street food trucks for pick-up.

Pelicana was one of the first chicken brands that commercialized fried chickens for delivery in the country, changing the way Koreans ate and viewed chicken. The CEO of Pelicana, Hee Kwon Yang, wanted to Koreanize this Western dish by applying sauce that was made with traditional Korean spices like garlic, onion, and gochujang. The brand called this new Koreanized fried chicken yangnyum tong-dak, to appeal to Korean consumers. It became a sensation and eventually an essential part of Korean food culture.

When I first tried Pelicana’s yangnyum tong-dak in my childhood living in Korea, I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like how the sauce made my fingers sticky, and the flavors of the sauce were not something that I was looking for when I wanted fried chicken. I preferred crispy, heavy-breaded chicken without the sauce, reminding me that I was enjoying something American. As more fried chicken chains appeared and the competition got tougher in Korea, I eventually stopped ordering KFC from Pelicana because I wanted to order chicken from new, trendy places that would offer more exciting, Western flavors that I couldn’t get every day in my Korean dishes.

But after moving to America and not always eating Korean food every day, I found myself craving for KFC more and more. I ate lots of Korean fried chicken here, covered with that sweet and spicy sauce, but I was never completely satisfied. It was the time for me to go back to where it all started; I wanted to try Pelicana’s original yangnyum tong-dak that kick-started my ongoing fried chicken journey.

Pelicana’s menu
Photo: Eve C. / Yelp

When I finally visited Pelicana, I had high expectations. The place was packed with other Koreans, probably reminiscent of this iconic brand just like I was. Behind the shiny, marble counter, there were paper boxes, neatly folded and lined up on the shelf ready for some fried chicken. The kitchen was visible and open, luring me in with the sound and smell of fried chicken. The place was loud with people and music in the background, and K-pop music videos and commercials were playing on every screen. I felt safe to shamelessly and loudly celebrate my love and obsession with K-pop and KFC here.

The menu was simple: There were eight different flavors to choose, and I could have either wings, whole chicken, or boneless chicken, available for half or full size. For full size orders, I could choose two different flavors. I went straight to the counter and ordered a whole crispy fried chicken with half Pelicana signature sauce and half honey garlic sauce.

After waiting about 20 minutes as they fried the chicken, I finally confronted face-to-face with Pelicana fried chicken for the first time in 14 years, and they looked exactly what I remembered from my childhood. The chicken was heavily-breaded, steaming-hot, and a bright ruby red color. I took a bite, and I was flooded with so many emotions. My eyes got teary not only because how juicy and delicious the chicken was, but also because it took me back to my memories of eating fried chicken with my brother and watching TV. The chicken was insanely crispy and had familiar Korean flavors from my childhood. It almost tasted like kimchi fried rice, but saucier with a hint of gochujang. Perfect harmony between the fried chicken and the sauce made me forget about all the other decent to mediocre ones that I tried in the city, and I realized that I didn’t need to settle for mediocre Korean fried chicken anymore.

Pelicana’s signature “yang-nyum tong-dak” and fried chicken with honey garlic sauce with a side of corn salad
James Park/Eater

After devouring, crying, and eating my feelings, I was afraid that honey garlic flavor might disappoint me, but I was thankfully wrong. It was sweet, but not too sweet, really savory, and as addictive as the original Pelicana sauce. It complemented the crispy-fried chicken like peanut butter and jelly; they belonged together. The sauce was really garlic-y, but it was a pleasant amount of garlic that made the flavors shine. Pelicana exceeded my high expectations.

It might have been my nostalgia that made my experience at Pelicana special, but their approach to Korean fried chicken — with bursting flavors and insanely crispy chicken with a thick batter — made it extraordinary. As many people’s New Year’s resolutions include eating healthy, I am proud to set my resolution as trying as many different flavor combinations as I can at Pelicana, as I happily and proudly call this place my new Korean fried chicken temple in NYC.

Food Gallery 32

11 W 32nd St, New York, NY 10001 (212) 967-1678 Visit Website