Just when we were getting used to Korean fried chicken, and loving every piece with its sweet and spicy flavors, along comes Taiwanese fried chicken. Sure, we’ve already had Taiwanese popcorn chicken, those fried morsels found on the menu of bubble tea parlors all over town, as well as at Taiwanese snack shops in Sunset Park, Elmhurst, and Manhattan’s Chinatown. And large slabs of fried chicken cutlets — part of a street food chain from Taiwan — has also appeared here.
But now we have a more proprietary fried chicken with the bone at TKK Fried Chicken, a chain founded in Taipei in 1974 by Shih Kwei-ting. In the fall, the company teamed up with already ubiquitous bubble tea shop Kung Fu Tea for a combo restaurant in Gramercy, located at 115 East 23rd St., east of Park Avenue South. Both the chicken and Kung Fu’s menu of teas can be found here.
The dining room has an order counter mid-store at which both chicken and Kung Fu’s teas are dispensed, cartoony murals on the walls, and a pair of high ceilinged dining rooms, one in front and the other concealed deep inside. On my two visits, the place was thronged with young people, possibly students from nearby Baruch College.
According to a blurb on the menu, the dude had to raise his own chickens to get the quality he wanted. For cooking technique, “he took the next step, traveling to the United States to research the best fried chicken technology.”
Looking back in time, I’d have to guess that technique was some form of broasting, wildly popular back then, especially at roadside chicken stands and gas station quick-stops, but now long forgotten. His style is not quite like that of any other fried chicken currently in town. The pieces seem steamed and fried simultaneously, super crusty outside and almost damp within. And the birds have been butchered in such a way that it’s sometimes hard to tell what body part you’re eating.
Despite the thick crust, the pieces seem to be skinless. Instead of sitting on skin, the breading adheres to the flesh via a thin elastic membrane. The chicken’s available in three styles: original, crispy mild, or crispy spicy. For god’s sake get the crispy spicy! The three piece combo comes with a very good biscuit (but no butter or honey) and one side from a choice of four ($9.89), but that’s maybe too much food, since the pieces are large.
Instead, get what’s known as the signature combo. Priced at $8.49, it includes one piece of chicken, one side, and a so-called kwa kwa bao, an invention that’s become a signature of the chain. It constitutes the beating heart of the menu and its most desirable element, also available as a solo item for $3.89. But what is kwa kwa bao? It’s sticky rice shot with the usual mushrooms. But it’s not wrapped in a lotus leaf as it’s often seen at dim sum restaurants — it gets sealed in chicken skin and fried. It looks like some mutant rodent with no head, arms, or legs, and it’s really, really good.
For sides, the four choices with the combo are curly fries, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, and shishito peppers. The peppers are superb; the potatoes creamy and chunky, with gravy unexpectedly dark and flavorful; the cole slaw slicked with only a hint of mayo; and the curly fries really awful in a chalky sort of way.
Apart from those, which may be ordered separately, there’s an honest but dull chicken sandwich, chicken tenders, and fried cheese curds, indicating Mr. Kwei-ting may have spent too much time in Wisconsin. The menu at TKK may frankly seem strange for those accustomed to American fried chicken chains, and the output is interesting but not always good. But I love the collection and could easily make a perfect meal there out of the signature combo with shishito peppers, or the mashed potatoes and gravy. Alternatively, a solid meal would be just two or three kwa kwa bao, dipped in the mango habanero sauce, one of five bottled dips offered.
That brings us to the teas. I’m not a bubble tea enthusiast even though I’ve seen the genre grow from its infancy, and marveled at how the concept expanded to include many formulations. Expect to find all of them at Kung Fu Tea, including the latest sensation: cheese tea. Only Kung Fu doesn’t identify it as such, calling it milk cap, described as “salty and creamy.” The wintermelon milk cap tea is sweet but with a bitter edge, and the milk cap sits on top like marshmallow fluff, leaving a gooey deposit on the upper lip.
I liked the fruity orange Caribbean breeze slushy ($5.25) a little better but wished I’d had a flask of tequila to spike it in the isolated back room. Finally, I had plain black tea warm, but when they offered to put bubbles (sago marbles) into it, I demurred.
The Kung Fu Tea/TKK duo makes one of the most interesting fast food franchises in town, especially if you pick your way carefully through the minefield of its menu.