Korean fried chicken, typically double-fried to a preternatural crispiness and sauced to order, has functioned as one of the quintessential traditions of the five boroughs since it appeared sometime in the mid-aughts. International chains like Bonchon, BBQ, and Pelicana have attracted masses with their paper-thin poultry crusts, while homegrown outfits like Turntable in Koreatown and UFC in Jackson Heights have drawn loyal crowds as well. Even Momofuku entered the fray in 2009, with a spendy, large-format version that would eventually command $150.
And now, Shake Shack wants to try its hand at this speciality, and The Internet, as it often does, has some opinions on the matter. Food writers and comedians alike have called the Korean-style chicken sandwiches and nuggets “lazy” or poor representations of the East Asian staples, and Twitter users have levied charges of cultural appropriation.
Eater NY’s Erika Adams published a comprehensive report on the matter, including responses from the Shake Shack’s culinary director, but since there’s food to be sampled, we dispatched critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton to make sense of it all, and, not incidentally, to find out how everything actually tastes.
Korean fried chicken arguably has not received the popularity it deserves, perhaps because we already have so many chicken chains here taking a more traditional American approach, further chains from Guatemala and the Philippines, and neighborhood Chinese restaurants frying up laudable versions, too. Into the breach jumped Shake Shack, trying to do with Korean fried chicken what Taco Bell had done with Mexican food: simplifying the formula, but causing controversy in the process.
Korean-Style Fried Chicken Sandwich
My favorite feature of Korean fried chicken when I first tried it in Flushing was not only that it involved bone-in chicken parts, skin intact, but that you could choose individual parts or a combination thereof. In fact, you could have all dark meat if you preferred, which is superior to bland white chicken breast. So, when I heard that Shake Shack’s evocation of Korean fried chicken involved skinless white meat rather than, say, thigh meat, I was disappointed. The gochujang glaze on the patty is not a bad idea, though the flavor is indistinct and murky. Yes, the kimchi is pallid, but really, we should be surprised that this much Korean umami comes through intact. I wouldn’t order this again, but if it makes fried chicken eaters curious to try actual Korean fried chicken, it will be a good thing.
Korean Gochujang Nuggets
It took me a while to come around to Shake Shack’s poultry nuggets, but yes, they are much better than McDonald’s, principally because they represent actual morsels of chicken and not some pureed amalgam. The marriage of gochujang and mayo that the sauce represents could have been good, though the oily texture might remind you of vaseline. I found the nuggets pleasantly salty, and the sauce less salty than it might be, so they did work together on some level. Yet I found myself preferentially eating the nuggets without sauce. Still, I would rather have a drumstick any day of the week.
Korean Gochujang Fries
Let’s face it: Shake Shack’s fries suck. They use frozen fries, rippled and chalky, in a move seemingly calculated to cut costs and make the Shack burger taste wonderful by comparison. The Shack bigwigs appear to be saying: “Who would eat a burger without fries? So let’s make ’em mediocre.” On these fries, the so-called gochujang sauce is actually an improvement, and I found myself using the sauce because the fries were so bad.
Let me be blunt: The billion-dollar burger chain’s gochujang fried chicken sandwich is the most poorly conceived and horribly executed thing Shake Shack has ever sold. What a ShackTravesty.
Korean fried chicken, of which there’s no shortage in New York, is one of the world’s great culinary delights, the product of studied techniques that create a poultry product that practically defies gravity. Unlike Southern-style birds, which tend to exalt a darker, denser, heftier crust, Korean cooks often use a thin batter that almost seems to fuse with the skin after two or three trips in the fryer. Sauces might vary — I prefer a chile-garlic glaze — but the dish’s trademark is a crunch that’s the poultry equivalent of biting into an ultra-light, avant-garde baklava.
Korean-Style Fried Chicken Sandwich
I didn’t encounter any audible or compelling crunch with this Shack sandwich. It was a study in glop. The glaze was reservedly sweet and mildly spiced, but it was applied with the heavy-handedness of bad Kansas City-style barbecue at a New Jersey theme park. A few initial bites provided some texture; subsequent bites turned out softer because the saucy skin easily slipped off the flavorless meat and merged with the bun, turning to mush. The kimchi slaw didn’t so much taste like actual kimchi in any of its myriad forms but rather like bland cabbage.
Korean Gochujang Nuggets
The Korean fried nuggets, in turn, were simply the chain’s regular nuggets. The purported Korean-ness came from a noxious gochujang mayo that seemed to have more in common with watered-down Russian salad dressing than the namesake spice.
Calling something Korean-style simply by adding a sauce or condiment recalls a retrograde American supermarket trope, where the nuanced techniques and gastronomic traditions of another culture’s cooking are flattened into a spice packet. It would be like declaring a bowl of New England clam chowder Japanese just because the sous-chef decided to throw in some togarashi and nori.
Beyond the fried chicken...
When I used to review ballpark foods more regularly at another publication, I’d talk about how, say, Yankee Stadium would ideally serve as an important ambassador for New York cuisine. Tourists who don’t normally seek out heralded culinary establishments might taste their first pastrami sandwich or cheese slice during a game, and it’s always a shame when those encounters occur at some lousy mass-market concessionaire. I recount this example because Shake Shack needs to realize that it is effectively a cultural diplomat — whether we like it or not. It has become, overnight, the most ubiquitous purveyor of Korean-fried chicken in the city, or perhaps even the country.
New York has at least six outposts of Bonchon, which makes darn good Korean fried chicken, but at least 27 Shake Shacks. And it just guts me to think someone who’s never encountered the miracle of Korean fried chicken might try it at our nation’s best burger chain and think, “gosh, this is just awful,” writing off the dish entirely.
Once upon a time, while I was dining at Atomix, a super-fancy Korean tasting menu spot, co-owner Ellia Park came over to me and started talking about the Mexican origins of her restaurant’s gochujang mole, and waxed poetic about Cosme, a nearby high-end Latin American spot. It was a humble gesture to help the diner connect the dots when one cuisine was borrowing from another, and also to show a little love to a competitor of sorts.
If a high-minded, philanthropic fast-food player like Shake Shack wants to be seen as an integral part of our culinary community, and not a ballooning excavator of financial and cultural capital, like so many other chains, it too could go beyond banal press release-style explainers and do more than tout the local businesses they formally partner with, like the Korean-American food processor that supplies its kimchi.
Shake Shack could give more honest descriptions of their cross-cultural riffs, as well as tip their hats to some of the other smaller purveyors of Korean fried chicken. Such a move would signal that Shake Shack — which took criticism for receiving a $10 million Paycheck Protection Program loan before returning it — has a role to play in helping more resource-strapped competitors succeed economically, especially when those other institutions are much more skilled at producing a dish that is so well known to so many, yet so poorly known to others.