What am I doing in this basement in Harvard Square, reviewing the second location of a multi-national franchise chain? Well, with BonChon, first there is a story, and then there is something very, very good to eat.
The story starts with an empty space once home to "the Bull Korean Steakhouse," for which some signage is still hanging, as are tables built on gas burners for DIY grilling. But somewhere along the line, that plan faltered, and what came here instead was a branch of this famous fried-chicken spot, differently set up and perhaps differently owned than the Allston outlet. Over there, my early visit found the fried chicken underwhelming and the spicy chicken overpowering. The Allston location also had a lot of sushi, for historic reasons. This one doesn't have sushi, sticks closer to the core Korean menu, and doesn't have alcoholic beverages. It is loud when crowded, but the fried chicken is divine. On my two summer visits, hardly anyone was doing grill-your-own, but there was a whole lot of take-out going on.
The chicken is available in two sauces and a variety of packages, from $9.95 (small order; wings or drumsticks) to $33.95 ("X-Large"; wings, drumsticks, or a combination from 10 one-legged birds with both wings). The soy-garlic sauce is about as spicy as that on Buffalo wings, while the hot sauce has three chili silhouettes and fully deserves them. I had a medium order of wings to check out both sauces, but was mostly impressed by the technique at its best. The Korean fried chicken (and you can guess the popular acronym) method is double frying, so the meat is nicely cooked and juicy, despite a medium-thick crust of very crisped batter. Indonesians and Filipinos were doing chicken parts like this before it hit Korea, but KFC has the simple, addictive seasonings, the really crisp batter, and the global reputation. The smallest order where you can try both sauces is a medium ($18.95/20 wings, 10 drumsticks, or a combo of 10 wings and five drumsticks). Some fans only go for the drumsticks, but I think your ration of batter is better with the wings.
Korean spicy sauce is surprisingly treatable with water, but the best foil is the included side dish of lightly pickled cubes of daikon radish ($1/a la carte), an effective tongue-saver.
It is, of course, entirely possible to eat at BonChon without hot pepper. The seafood scallion pancake ($12.95) is just scallions, squid, and shrimp, served hot at the table with some oil to keep your eyes bright and your coat shiny. Pan-fried pork dumpling ($6.95) is a very decent, lightened version of Peking ravioli, with spices only in the dips. Gyerin Jjim ($6.95), a "steamed egg casserole," is even more delicate than Japanese chawan mushi, because it is just egg.
When you are ready for a little spice, try the takoyaki ($7.95): octopus fritters (rather starchy) topped with a brown spicy sauce, Asian mayonnaise, and bonito shaved so thin it waves in the heat, thus making food in motion (with a flash of fishy/salty accent when you bite in). The Allston platter was more picturesque, but this one was the same fun and flavor and six ping-pong-ball-size double mouthfuls.