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Zabu Chicken's "Zabu Soy Original" with a side of pickled radish in Vancouver Feb. 2, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Zabu Chicken's "Zabu Soy Original" with a side of pickled radish in Vancouver Feb. 2, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The Dish

KFC that pulls rank on the Colonel Add to ...

Happy Day Metro House

109-5021 Kingsway, Burnaby

604-431-6995

$45 for chicken for two with beer, tax and tip

Cuisine: Korean

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Zabu Chicken

1635 Robson St., Vancouver

604-602-0021

$40 for chicken for two with beer, tax and tip

Cuisine: Korean

During a 10-hour stopover in Seoul last month, I went on a whirlwind culinary tour with an expat food blogger. We hoofed it to a street vendor for freshly steamed kimchi buns, made a mad dash through narrow cobblestone alleys to snack on hand-shaped dumplings stuffed with pork, crushed tofu and sweet potato noodles, then sat down to 12 quick-fire courses at a gourmet Buddhist temple restaurant. Sadly, one local taste sensation we didn’t have time to try was the city’s famous KFC – the other kind.

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“You’ve never had Korean fried chicken?” my guide exclaimed, as we devoured deep-fried shitake mushrooms brushed with a sweetly sour chili glaze, the monks’ refined vegan variation.

No, I hadn’t. But upon returning to Vancouver, I made it my mission to find some of this crisp, papery skinned, American-inspired bird that has flown the coop and fluttered full circle, recently ascending as one of the trendiest comfort foods in New York and Los Angeles.

A cross between Southern fried chicken and Buffalo wings, Korean fried chicken ( yangnyeom dak) acquires its distinctive crunch from a par-frying technique that renders the fat from the skin, making it thinner and less greasy. Although recipes vary, the chicken is usually dredged in a fine-flour batter, fried for 10 minutes at a relatively low heat and shaken vigorously in a wire strainer to smooth out the coating’s nubs and crags. After being quickly cooled, it is plunged back into the deep fryer until evenly browned and tossed in sauce, which is absorbed through the lean crust without getting soggy.

The search led to Happy Day Metro House, a garishly lit outpost on Kingsway near Boundary Road. Seated at a spacious purple booth while being serenaded by Korean pop and Katy Perry, a friend and I were slightly disappointed to discover that this suburban dive doesn’t provide the customary complements of pickled radish (their wilted broccoli banchan looked awfully sad) or Korean beer (we made do with draft glasses of Okanagan Spring lager). Happy Day does, however, offer massively mounded plates of “real potato chips” (imagine the spiraled “hurricanes” at Richmond Night Market, plucked off their wooden skewers and heavily salted).

After perusing a confusing menu (three menus, actually) with 20-odd fried chicken dishes overlapping in several sections, we eventually settled on spicy drumsticks and a combo platter of boneless white and dark meat with mustard sauce on the side.

“On the side?” an otherwise aloof waitress asked quizzically. Lesson learned: Don’t ignore a server’s subtle hints when dining in unfamiliar territory.

There was nothing wrong with our long juicy tenders buried under slivered green onions. Or the mustard sauce, a magnificently sinus-tingling, minced garlic slurry. Pale golden breading was thicker than expected, leading us to wonder if the chicken had been fried only once – or perhaps brined and steamed before frying (the method David Chang uses for his rarefied Korean fried poulet rouge at Momofuku Noodle Bar.)

But when reheating the leftover pieces (still crisp and moist two days later), I couldn’t help thinking that we had missed a potentially explosive KFC moment by not eating them sizzling hot right out of the fryer, all tangled up in sticky scallion clumps. If you go, order your chicken as the server suggests – although you can safely skip the spicy drumsticks (more delicately fried, but heavy-handedly smeared in goopy, fermented-chili gochujang).

A modern snack food not served in traditional restaurants, Korean fried chicken is still a stealthy target in Greater Vancouver. Zabu Chicken was the only other place I could find it.

Painted in wall-to-wall black and pulsing with bubbly pop music, this rowdy student hangout in the West End’s little Korea Town is more of a late-night bar than restaurant. But it does offer take-out, plenty of Korean beer (including a shattered bottle of Hite that one very tipsy urban soldier dropped at our feet) and extremely addictive, crackly crusted, lightly sauced KFC.

While Zabu’s “freshest, not frozen” chicken can be ordered in various portions of wings and sticks, I suggest the “original,” a whole chicken hacked into bite-sized pieces with all its flavourful thigh meat and finely crusted back bones that are such fun to scrape and chomp. Especially when tossed in Zabu’s finger-licking soy garlic sauce, a mildly sweet honey-garlic glaze ignited by savoury umami. And served with a refreshing side dish of pickled radish.

Mission deliciously accomplished.

 
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