Are we witnessing the first major wave of new Korean restaurants in metro Phoenix? All-you-can-eat barbecue parlors and late-night soju joints are popping up seemingly overnight in suburban strip malls and upscale shopping centers, especially around the East Valley.
If you have a taste for Korean cooking, one of the world’s most fascinating and eclectic cuisines, it’s a thrilling development.
Ours is still a modest scene, though, and it’s not without some culinary gaps.
One of Korea’s hottest culinary exports of the past decade, for instance – crispy, juicy Korean fried chicken, or KFC – is still kind of scarce around here.
Po Chicken, a restaurant that opened earlier this year in Mesa, goes a long way toward filling this void. The restaurant sells three varieties of KFC, along with other hard-to-find Korean delicacies. Namely, Po Chicken also specializes in juk – Korean-style rice porridges, which are served with a small but elegant array of banchan, the tiny side dishes that typically land on the table at the beginning of a Korean meal.
Fried chicken and porridge might strike you as an unlikely pairing. But it’s part of what makes Po Chicken so memorable and satisfying. The menu seems to have something for everyone, even if that something is as simple as a platter full of crisp chicken wings.
Po Chicken comes to us from Sungchul Jo and Suk Hee Kweon. The husband-and-wife team previously owned and operated a similar restaurant concept, also called Po Chicken, for eight years in the Philippines. The couple sold that restaurant and moved to the U.S. about two years ago. They opened their family-run spot in the heart of the East Valley’s flourishing Asian dining corridor in February.
The restaurant is a strip-mall charmer, its dining room outfitted with tall, tufted booths and bright florescent lighting. A little sleepy by day, the restaurant seems to come alive at night, when the thrum of upbeat Korean pop music playing over the house speakers serves as a backdrop against the chatter of the college students and families that crowd into the restaurant’s booths.
The menu is divided into three sections: assorted hot pots and side dishes; a large selection of steaming-hot porridge bowls; and chicken, including three types of Korean fried chicken plus several braised chicken dishes.
You’ll definitely want to sample the restaurant’s fried chicken. But what makes KFC different from American-style fried chicken?
The magic is in its thin, delicate, very crisp crust. The chicken is only lightly battered and often double-fried, which produces fried chicken with a thin, crackly rind. The crust is a delicious foil to the bird’s moist, juicy interior. The apotheosis of this style is achieved in Po’s basic, sparingly seasoned fried chicken platter, which is labeled on the menu as crispy fried chicken. The chicken pieces – mostly wings and small drumsticks – are cleanly fried and perfectly crunchy.
If you prefer your KFC with a flavorful kick, order it yang nyum-style, which comes dressed in a sweet-spicy sauce. My favorite, though, is the ganjang chicken, which comes seasoned with a savory garlic-soy glaze. Can’t decide which one to order? The Half & Half, which lets you mix-and-match between two different types, is a popular order.
Don’t overlook Po Chicken’s other specialty: marvelously tender, flavorful braised chicken dishes. The jjimdak, a soy sauce-braised chicken dish, is one of the most satisfying things on the whole menu. It’s a simple dish – braised chicken cooked in a gingery, chile-spiked soy sauce, served with chopped vegetables and a pantry’s worth of aromatics. The hunks of chicken are silky and moist, and the soy sauce seasoning is deeply flavorful and fragrant. One order easily feeds two or three.
Then there’s the porridge side of the menu. A steaming bowl of juk, or Korean rice porridge, might not seem like the most amenable thing to eat in the throes of a Phoenix summer. But it’s delicious.
These Korean porridges are more or less equivalent to American chicken soup: gently seasoned, easy on the digestive system, and deeply comforting. The Po Chicken menu touts the nutritive properties of dishes like Recovery Porridge, which is essentially white rice in a mild, brothy soup, flavored by an impressive quantity of buttery, salty abalone.
Another highlight is the squash porridge – a thick, bright orange soup made from kabocha squash. It’s earthy, lightly sweet, and utterly delicious. Looking for something heavier, or maybe a touch spicier? The octopus, kimchi, and bean sprouts porridge is deliciously savory, an umami bomb spiked with well-aged kimchi.
All porridges are accompanied by a modest but refreshing assortment of homemade banchan – sharp, flavorful dishes like savory tofu skin, pickled daikon, and a funky fermented kimchi that pulsates with a surprising depth of flavor.
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Apart from chicken and porridge, the Po Chicken kitchen also offers a few miscellaneous dishes. There’s old-fashioned homemade donkkasu, a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet carved into neat slices and served with a sweet gravy. It’s comfort food at its finest. A solid and light side dish that pairs well with pretty much everything on the menu is the restaurant’s gyeranchim, a custardy, steamed egg omelet topped with scallions. It arrives still cooking in its heated bowl.
Whether you opt for spicy, crunchy chicken wings, a healthful bowl of porridge, or anything else, Po Chicken stands out in a part of the Valley that’s already chock-full of great new restaurants. Just across the street from Po Chicken, the Mekong Plaza beckons with its promise of noodle shops, boba tea joints, Chinese pastries, sous vide bowls, and homemade dumplings.
Po Chicken, though, is its own worthy destination. There’s nothing else quite like it on Dobson Road, or anywhere else in the Valley – at least not yet.
1933 West Main Street, #8, Mesa
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday
Homemade donkkasu (breaded pork cutlet) $9.99
Squash porridge $10.99
Crispy fried chicken $15.99