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Red Wings: Korean Fried Chicken Done Right. Really Right 

Wednesday, Apr 13 2011
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We may be at Red Wings for beer and bar food, but this being Korean beer and bar food, the first thing to arrive at the table is pickled daikon. A few minutes after we order a $26.90 beer-and-chicken-wing combo, the waiter brings out a small bowl of white cubes, marinated in barely enough vinegar to tame the radish bite, as well as a plate of shredded cabbage dressed in squiggles of peach mayonnaise. His next trip brings us short, stubby glasses and a pitcher of Hite beer. Rather, sort of a pitcher. The practical-minded Korean brewery sells pitchers premeasured into brown, plastic screw-cap jugs. Ours lands on the table with a thud.

We're not here for the beer.

It is around 8:30 when we arrive, which means it's about two hours too early to eat here. By nine, small parties will have started pulling together tables, no one older than 30, the conversations veering off into a few languages and a thousand topics. The talk smothers the sports commentary on the two TVs, which are there only to entertain takeout customers, but not the music, which jumps from K-pop to Justin Bieber, then wallows in the hinterlands somewhere between. Three blocks from the USF dorms, the restaurant is decorated like a classic college pub, with sturdy wood tables, functional chairs, and signs plucked from the walls of a dozen different rec rooms.

We are not at Red Wings for the decor, either.

In addition to jugs of Hite, bottles of soju, and carafes of sugary soju cocktails whose fruit flavors mask the spirit's chemical-peel edge halfway, Red Wings, like any bar in Korea, serves a short menu of drinking snacks. They're called anju: In addition to the Korean fried chicken wings, the menu lists dishes like grilled meats, chicken skewers, udon in clam broth, and budae jjigae, the fiery stew swimming with army-camp provisions like Spam, hot dogs, and instant ramen. They're the same dishes I saw on bar menus in Seoul when I was there two years ago, so I e-mail my friend Jennifer Flinn, who runs the FatMan Seoul food blog, to ask whether anju is always required. "Very cutting-edge, fancy cocktail bars might let you just order a drink," she writes back. "But it's almost unheard of for a normal Korean drinking establishment to let you only order booze — partially because beer, soju, and makgeolli [unfiltered rice wine] are so inexpensive."

Many of Red Wing's anju are not that great. Cheese corn ($5.99) is barely more than those two bland ingredients, glued together on a sizzle plate. An egg and shrimp custard ($5.99) — eggs whisked together with broth, then poured into a hot bowl to puff and quickly set — has a lovely, deep shellfish flavor, but the eggs have curdled and separated from the broth instead of forming a fluffy, uniform mass. The al-tang ($13.90), a chile-colored soup swimming with chunks of tofu and roe sacs that look like oversized acorns, is too thin for my taste, the eggs overcooked and mealy. If I were to order a little something extra, it would be the duk bokki, wobbly, tube-shaped rice cakes drenched in a sweet and fiery chile sauce. A ubiquitous street snack, they are compellingly chewy, even when they're a little underdone, as they are here. Red Wings' duk bokki can be ordered with slices of fish cake and a hard-boiled egg ($10.90), or smothered in a thick cap of melted cheese ($12.90), or swimming with curly ramen ($12.90).

You've probably guessed it: We're not there for the anju.

I have come to Red Wings, time after time, for the yangnyeom dak, more commonly known in the States as Korean fried chicken, or, with a wink, "KFC." Red Wings is what Flinn calls a "chicken hof." "Most chicken hof are specialized," she writes, "and either only serve chicken or serve it as part of a limited menu (snail and noodle salad, fruit platters, and french fries). Families and young people order chicken as a take-out or delivery meal, but most of the people who go to the chicken restaurant are looking to drink beer as well as eat." KFC isn't as pervasive in the Bay Area as it is in N.Y.C.'s Queens and L.A.'s Koreatown, but you can find it in San Francisco at Toyose, Shin Toe Bul Yee, and at a number of bars in Oakland, most notably Oriental B.B.Q. ChickenTown.

And the fried chicken wings, Red Wings does magnificently — better than any wings I've eaten at Toyose, Little Skillet, and KFC (the real one). Red Wings' basic recipe, the K-pop ($13.90 whole order, $7.50 half) shows off the wings in their naked glory. The chunks of chicken, the size of a 5-year-old's fists, are covered in a sturdy batter that comes out of the fryer craggy and uniformly gold. Crunch through the oilless shell, and the meat is shiny and succulent, almost as if it has been brined. Sometimes the chicken must be eaten off the bone — which takes very little labor — and sometimes the chunks of meat prove mysteriously bone-free. (I do not ask; I eat.) The K-jun ($15.90/$8.50) wings are dusted with Cajun spices and flecks of green onion; the seasoning adds a little extra to the flavor, as do the tiny saucers of sweetened mayonnaise the server sets on the table to dip the chicken in.

The other two styles go from the frying pan to the sauce pot, with mixed results. I've eaten the manul chicken, which is tossed with a sugary soy and garlic glaze, twice; one time, the batter had clearly sat in the syrup for longer than it should, and gotten soggy, but the other time the manul wings came out glossy and crackling, as if the cooks had studied San Tung's legendary wings and then improved upon them. The fourth variety, the yani chicken ($8.50/$15.90), is the honest-to-goodness red wings the restaurant's title promises. It is tossed with the same chile-powered sauce as the duk bokki — a brash shout of red pepper, a keening sweetness, the growl of garlic — and a new napkin is needed for every wing. After a few sticky, spicy bites, the necessity of the pickled daikon and light Korean lager becomes clear.

Do you go to Bob's Donuts for its muffins? Do you stop by McDonald's for cappuccino? (Uh, strike that.) Does Red Wings have to excel at anything besides chicken and beer? Though the restaurant does have another subspecialty, which I discover on one visit when we order so much food that the server brings over one more: feather-light, contorted, perfectly fried sweet potato chips ($5.90), dusted in white sugar instead of salt. Snicker all you like at the seasoning: The basket may be empty by the time your next jug of beer arrives.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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