<Updates: Bonchon has now closed>
We at Korean Connection would like everyone to experience Korean food. Grand Rapids has a quickly growing Korean dining scene. If you are a Korean cuisine aficionado looking for authentic tastes, or seeking a good first experience, we would like to offer our advice on making your experience exceptional.
We will start our local Korean food journey with BonChon (bonchon.com/grand-rapids-mi, 2321 East Beltline Ave NE, Ste F, Grand Rapids, MI.) Since its opening in late August, we have collectively visited BonChon a dozen times, both for take-out and dining in. Although most identified with fried chicken, BonChon features a diverse menu of Korean, Japanese, and fusion dishes, including lunch-friendly items like Korean tacos, pork buns (Japanese Hirata pork belly in a bun) and chicken wraps. Four items are labeled as “authentic” Korean: bulgogi, bibimbap, japchae, and fried rice. We were surprised to find the bar has a very respectable selection of beers, wines, and mixed drinks, including some popular Korean beverages, Jinro soju and Hite beer, which are otherwise hard to find in Grand Rapids.
BonChon is a franchise restaurant specializing in Korean-style fried chicken. Fried chicken was introduced to Korea in the 1950’s, because it was a favorite of American GIs. Over time, it gained distinct Korean interpretations, usually involving twice-frying to make it extra crispy, and then painting it with a sweet and spicy sauce or sweet and savory sauce. There are now many independent and chain fried chicken restaurants in Korea. BonChon (본촌) which mean “my hometown,” began in 2002 in Busan, South Korea. It has found its greatest success outside Korea, in the Philippines (140 locations) Thailand (27) the Washington metro area (24) the New York City metro area (15) and the San Francisco Bay Area (12.) Its corporate headquarters is now in NYC.
The East Beltline location, just north of Knapp Corner, is BonChon’s first Michigan franchisee. Because of the divided highway, you must enter the parking lot while driving southbound. Be warned that the entrance is well to the north of the restaurant and is a long driveway that is not obviously connected to the parking lot. Thus, you may inadvertently pass it on your first visit.
Chicken pulls its weight as BonChon’s signature dish. We suggest the real wings and drumsticks. The chicken strips have more meat but can be dry inside. And the strip’s meat doesn’t get as well seasoned with the sauces. If you peel off the breading, it’s just a chunk of plain chicken breast.
Two sauce choices are available. We were not as impressed with the spicy sauce as with the soy-garlic sauce. The former is hot and tangy, but lacks Korean flavors. A Korean spicy chicken recipe would use a mix of gochujang (red pepper sauce) pepper powder, and soy sauce. BonChon’s spicy chicken sauce tastes like Tabasco, so if you like Tabasco, you will like this sauce. If you are expecting gochujang, you might be disappointed. In contrast, no one was disappointed with the soy-garlic sauce.
The chicken meals come with a side of coleslaw or pickled radish. If you have not tried Korean radish, we highly recommend it. It is very different from an American radish.
Some Americans are surprised to find that Korean food is not necessarily spicy. Japchae is a sweet and savory mixture of meat, vegetables, and Korean noodles (당면, tangmyun noodle from sweet potato.) Japchae contains five colors that represent the five elements of the universe. Preparing the different vegetables for Japchae requires much time and many procedures. BonChon’s japchae is one of four items on the “authentic” section of the menu. We found it to be sweet, brilliant and delightful. Very authentic indeed. We highly recommend the Japchae unless you are going to BonChon only to seek the heat.
Bull-dak (불닭) means “fire chicken.” Bonchon’s version certainly lives up to the name. However, there may be a reason the Bull-dak appears on the “fusion” section of the menu instead of the “authentic” section. It has the same sauce used on the spicy chicken, but in a much greater quantity. Thus, it has a fierce Tabasco flavor rather than a gochujang flavor. This was disappointing to the Koreans among us. Also, the level of heat makes it difficult to appreciate the taste of the other ingredients. We recommend this dish for Tabasco lovers but must caution everyone else.
Takoyaki is a common Japanese street food. BonChon’s Takoyaki is six of these fried octopus dumplings (dough balls) topped with Japanese mayo, okonomiyaki (a thick, sweet and savory Worcestershire-like sauce) and banito flakes (dried, shaved fish flakes) on a bed of chopped cabbage. Because Takoyaki is not common in Korea, we cannot comment on the authenticity. We debated whether it should best be described as an appetizer for a party of 3 to 6, an over-priced ($6.95) street-food, or a very reasonably-priced main course that might be combined with some soup or salad. But, we all agree that it was exceptionally good and recommend it, even to Americans who are reluctant to try octopus meat.
Although not enough of us have tried these items to make a collective recommendation, some of us were impressed with the salmon avocado ball, potstickers, and pork buns.
BonChon’s Kimchi tastes exactly as Kimchi should taste. However, Kimchi, along with some other sides (반찬, banchan) come with every meal and are always served free in Korea. Thus, paying $3 for a small side order of Kimchi was quite disconcerting to the Koreans among us. However, as Kimchi is an acquired taste, we can understand why an American restaurant will not treat it with the same reverence. If you are going to BonChon for a “Korean experience,” we do recommend an order of kimchi to share among your table.
BonChon opened in late October. It is no surprise that we experienced some beginner’s issues. Service was sometimes slow, but always friendly. Some of the tables are wobbly because of a construction defect. The only way we could enjoy our dinner was to have a consensus among our party that all must put our arms on the table or none of us did. Our server said that replacement screws are coming soon, so we are optimistic about our next visit. On one occasion, our server insisted that a yogurt soju was a lychee soju. And once a take-out order was wrong, but the management was very gracious and offered a credit on our next visit.
We hope this information is helpful. Maybe we will see you at BonChon!