Winging It

Michael Nagrant / 03.05.08

Watch out Col. Sanders. General Tso is ready for battle. Fried chicken, once the exclusive domain of Southern gentleman and grandmothers hunched over cast-iron skillets, has a new international face. 
Standby seasonings such as cayenne, paprika and garlic are ceding their supremacy to exotic aromatics like lemongrass, ginger and gojuchang (Korean red chili paste).

In the last two years, Chicago has witnessed the arrival of crispy poultry from Korea, Guatemala and Japan as well as the growing popularity of stalwarts from China and Thailand.

The emergence of international fried chicken is a familiar story of immigrants and their first generation progeny cultivating native culinary traditions and recapturing a bit of comfort after settling in the United States.

Though she doesn’t serve it in her Edgebrook restaurant, Elephant Thai, owner/chef Apinya “Ann” Leevathana has been making black pepper-coated Thai fried chicken for years.

“Growing up, it was everywhere,” she says. “It’s a very popular street food in Bangkok.”

Vanna Gumtrontip, owner of Spoon Thai in Lincoln Square and Silver Spoon in River North, makes one of the best versions of Kai Thawt, Thai fried chicken kissed with lemongrass and pepper, in the city.

One of Chicago’s oldest and most popular ethnic fried chicken options are the spicy wings at Great Sea restaurant in Albany Park. Twenty years ago, Chinese immigrant and chef/owner Nai Tiao concocted the soy and chili sauced fried chicken wings.

Tiao’s daughter, Karen Lim, says, “I’ve been eating these for 20 years. It’s part of who I am.”

Lim believed in the wings so much, she quit her job as a teacher to open Take Me Out, a Pilsen restaurant centered on the family wing recipe slated to open this weekend.

Doug Funke and partner Jae Lee of Crisp in Lakeview, a Korean-inspired spot, both grew up eating their mothers’ Korean fried chicken.

For Funke, a former money manager for Morgan Stanley, slinging Korean fried chicken is more than a cultural reminder. It also is a fantastic business opportunity.

“People were going crazy for Korean chicken in L.A. and New York, but they were doing a terrible job of taking it mainstream,” he says. “Ninety percent of the customers at these places were immigrants. We knew we could make a phenomenal chicken that everybody would love.”

Funke and Lee went on a fact-finding trip, eating, by their estimate, more than 200 different kinds of chicken from coast to coast to find their recipe.

Because of its familiarity through chains like Popeyes and KFC, Funke sees fried chicken as the perfect gateway to introducing American consumers to a broader world of Korean food, including bibimbop and ssam (Korean burritos).

Like Funke, Levy Family Partners, which operates the Guatemalan Pollo Campero franchise in Chicago, saw the financial opportunity in a Central American phenomenon.

“There were franchise units in airports in El Salvador and people were bringing chicken to their families,” says Levy Pollo CEO Andy Florsheim. “The airlines started considering retrofitting overhead compartments to contain the smells.”

The fried chicken fusion phenomenon has even hit haute cuisine. James Beard award-winning chef Takashi Yagihashi marinates chicken in sake and seasons it with lemongrass before frying the seasoned nuggets in duck fat at his eponymous Bucktown restaurant.

From low end to high end, international fried chicken is no fad, and it may just become as American as apple pie.

As Lim says, “The wings are by far our best-selling dish. Some people come in only for the wings and don’t even look at the menu . . . People are crazy for this stuff.”