When pressed, a receptionist at Chick Chick, a new Korean fried chicken spot on the Upper West Side, estimates that the Nashville-style sandwich ranks a 6.5 out of 10 on the spiciness scale. The answer is surprising because that incendiary style of poultry usually merits more intense warnings or waivers. Fried chicken in the vein of Tennessee’s most populous city, better known as hot chicken, can convey a level of heat that will, to put it mildly, get your attention. Cooks usually toss a potent mix of chile powders into warm oil, then brush their fried chicken with the crimson infusion. The hottest blends stick to the tongue like a flaming natural resource spill over the ocean; water does not quell this fire.
Restaurants across the country — including chains like KFC and Shake Shack — have been adapting this combustible class of fiery chicken in recent years, sometimes paying homage to the dish’s humble roots and sometimes attracting claims of appropriation. Chick Chick’s chef-owner Jun Park, for his part, tweaks things a bit further than the norm, reinterpreting the Tennessee staple though an East Asian lens.
He dredges the chicken thigh in batter, fries it, then dips the chicken in clarified butter (rather than oil) before sprinkling it with a mix of ichimi pepper, cayenne, paprika, gochugaru, onion powder, and garlic powder. He then tosses it onto a squishy bun with fat pickles and adds white sauce and lettuce.
What results is a more balanced affair than the typical hot chicken experience. Each bite conveys heavy crackle and crunch, a dose of juicy meat with a pungent chile finish that only pricks the tongue for a pleasant minute or two. The heat never rises to the level of “I need to shotgun a milkshake right now,” even if you ask for an off-menu extra spicy version, which amps up the paprika smoke and peppery astringency to more noticeably robust levels. Even so, the buttermilk sauce, with its hint of sweetness and acidity, keeps any wayward heat in check.
Some might wish the sandwich were a touch spicier, as breathtaking imbalance is often the point of Nashville chicken. Park would also be well served to tip his hat publicly — on the website, on social media, or on the menu — to the Black business owners cooking up hot chicken at places like Prince’s or Bolton’s, so their contributions aren’t overlooked as this dish works its way through the national culinary zeitgeist.
All that said, it’s most excellent to see a Korean chef testing out a cross-cultural riff on the increasingly ubiquitous poultry dish rather than yet another replication. It is a very good sandwich. Heatwise, I’d call it a 5 out of 10.
Modern Korean fare — cooking that’s often more wedded to creativity and multiculturalism than any particular set of strict regional culinary precepts — has been a defining characteristic of New York’s restaurant scene over the past half decade or so. We’ve seen this at barbecue spots like Cote, globally minded brasseries like Haenyeo (four words: rice cake queso fundido), tasting menu counters like Atomix, and now at Chick Chick, a homegrown fried chicken spot whose internationalist sensibilities deviate from those of traditionally minded poultry chains. This is where Park, who spent time working at Catch in the Meatpacking District, serves shatteringly crisp Korean wings alongside Nashville-esque sandwiches, flaky Southern-style biscuits, truffled fried rice bowls, and gochujang chicken sandwiches that the chef created as a direct response to the Shake Shack version (uh-oh).
Park, who owns the space with his wife, BoMee Chu, will also offer creamy chicken paitan ramen starting next month, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows that the duo also runs Jun-Men Ramen Bar in Chelsea.
All of my Chick Chick visits were takeout affairs, as the outdoor dining area was still fully enclosed. The fried birds, by my estimation, did not suffer during Citibike rides back to my Hell’s Kitchen apartment.
A bit of context: Korean chicken, fried two to four times before being lightly brushed with sauce, has matched Southern-style poultry as one of the city’s dominant strains of crispy fowl. And while New York City-bred spots like Turntable and UFC have earned raves, international chains have largely fueled the local ascendancy of Korean fried chicken. Nearly 15 years ago, the first Bonchon appeared in New York; its myriad outlets still put out wings so impressively textured it’s like biting through a mille-feuille to arrive at a morsel of chicken. More recently, Pelicana swung into Manhattan, serving drumsticks so perfectly engineered they deserve a place at the MoMA sculpture garden; the skin almost looks painted onto the meat, like a fanciful papier-mâché version of chicken.
Chick Chick’s wings don’t necessarily have the same baklava-like exterior as Bonchon’s, and they aren’t as densely crunchy as at Pelicana, but they still flaunt a level of crispness that would put most non-Korean chicken wings to shame. Park lightly batters the bone-in meat in a thin layer of Japanese potato starch and fries it twice: once at a lower temperature, then at a higher one for some extra snap. Beneath the taut skin lies meat that’s distinctly more chicken-y and seasoned than the forgettably neutral flesh one encounters at the chains; Chick Chick uses fresh, hormone-free, vegetarian-fed chickens.
The accompanying sauces taste like they sound, only with sugar added. The sweet gochujang is obviously sweet; the soy-garlic is vaguely garlicky, with complex notes of warming spices (and a touch too sweet); and the black pepper soy, my favorite, is vaguely astringent and meaningfully less treacly than the others.
A word of note for textural connoisseurs: When breaking down larger chicken pieces for frying, Park uses a richer batter than with the wings. The breasts and thighs exhibit a slightly heartier crunch that seems to evoke a Southern deep fry or a Japanese-style karaage; the coating serves as a sturdy counterpoint to the soft, deftly cooked poultry flesh.
In the starch department, rice is the smart move, since fries turn soggy during delivery trips home — just as they might anywhere else. Park’s kimchi fried rice is particularly masterful; each bite pops with crumbly chicken sausage, bright scallion, firm grains, jammy fried egg, and crimson-hued cabbage packed with enough fermented tang that it feels as carbonic as a bottle of Pepsi.
There’s also a truffled fried rice dish; conventional wisdom usually dictates that any truffled dish below $75 should be viewed with suspicion, but this version manages to express the delicate flavor of the aromatic fungi for $15. Pairing truffles with rice is common enough, but where things get interesting is when Park tosses in scallions and green chiles, using the sharp allium and tongue-piercing peppers to counteract the earthiness. Depending on the bite, the somewhat tame-sounding rice can be the spiciest dish here.
And then there’s the gochujang chicken sandwich. I was explicit about my anathema for the Shake Shack version, due to its soggy texture and heavy-handed application of sauce, among other reasons dealing with representation, credit, and capitalism. Park didn’t like that billion-dollar chain’s sandwich either (“I felt like it didn’t do the gochujang sauce justice. Gochujang sauce is supposed to have lots of flavor,” he said via email), which is why he created a comparable sandwich for his own establishment. It’s still sweet, but the heat and salt keep things somewhat balanced, while the fry delicately maintains its craggy structures despite the saucing. Well done.
Chick Chick offers just one dessert, a white chocolate cookie that manages to taste like a brilliantly salty pretzel. An option to add matcha ice cream is available to dine-in guests only, a style of service I can’t recommend here — at least not yet.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the city deems tents with three or more sides to be the equivalent of indoor dining, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates as one of the riskiest styles of dining out. Chick Chick’s outdoor structure is fully enclosed. The venue’s setup is also unfortunate because it makes Chick Chick feel cut off from the vibrancy of the Upper West Side. Take, for example, the string of restaurants located a few blocks down on Amsterdam Avenue, where more ventilated tents make the adjoining venues feel like a socially distanced street fair or biergarten. That smarter style of outdoor dining feels additive to the cityscape and speaks to how New Yorkers are finally embracing a communal, European-style, al fresco ethos to eating out.
The good news on this front is that Park says he’ll open up Chick Chick’s enclosures when the weather gets warmer for what he calls a more “open-air feel” to the sidewalk space. When he does that, I’ll be back to try the ramen and ice cream.