Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to West 32nd St for spicy chicken and cheese.
Hong Chun Cheon is, apparently, a huge deal in South Korea, with hundreds of locations throughout the country, all specializing in Dak-galbi, a center-of-the-table shared dish of stir fry featuring spicy chicken and a river of melted cheese. Given the innate appeal to all of the above, it's somewhat surprising that the chain only opened their first American location just last month, which you can now find in a largely unmarked, 2nd story spot that very nearly gets lost amid the sensory overload of prime Koreatown.
But there it is! Hong Chun Cheon takes over the space that used to hold K-Town BBQ, and it seems as if they changed almost nothing inside. The old round spool-like tables, each with their own heating device and circled by short and backless stools that are truly brutal on the back, are the same. The wooden floors remain scuffed, and they only painted over the BBQ-specific murals on the walls, leaving the generic cityscape one as is.
All that said, groups of eager young eaters seemed to have no problem finding the place, nor perching on these godawful stools for a full multi-skillet feast, and the place was crowded both times I went over the weekend, even in the mid-afternoon. Service is scattered and forgetful, there's a definite air of management indifference in the room. But with contemporary pop and hip-hop also in the air, it feels fun, to be sure.
The centerpiece of the Hong Chun Cheon experience is the Dak-galbi, and it's a good, lively platter of stir-fried chicken slashed down the middle with a wide band of shredded mozzarella that melts within minutes of being placed on the stove top that is your table. The bird is all bite-size chunks of thigh meat, and it's juicy and tender and covered in a red sauce set to the spiciness of your choosing. I went with "Hot," or 3 out of 4, and though my server spent an uncomfortable amount of time trying to dissuade me from my decision, I stuck to my guns. I'm glad I did, too: the stuff gets your attention, and even makes you sweat a little bit, but it's not at a "dare" level of heat.
In addition to chicken, the Dak-galbi comes with breaded, fried sweet potatoes, which are fine and add some textural interest, a bunch of slippery rice cakes, and, for an additional $2 fee, a whole mess of decent kimchi. I also got a topping of Gimmari, or super-seaweedy rice rolls, which, along with some banchan-like snacks, they forgot to deliver until the end of my dinner. Supposedly you get also cheesy fried rice with your skillet meal, but my check arrived before that came to pass.
Here's the thing: the minimum order of any of the main dishes is for two people—so that's at least $50 with tax and tip just to sit down—and the under-seasoned fried chicken is the only other thing on the menu you're allowed to get if you don't get a skillet. All other sides and all the fried rice dishes are off-limits. Obviously this makes for a terribly unfriendly restaurant for solo diners, but even couples will have a hard time eating more than a single dish from the menu. If you like variety, this place is not for you.
I really wish they had put some effort into this venture—staff training, a redesign, maybe some menu flexibility—instead of slapping something down and counting that money. But the Dak-galbi itself is pretty good, and if you can assemble a crew who likes Korean-style fire and tons of cheese, then Hong Chun Cheon might make for a fun, very filling night out.
Hong Chun Cheon is located at 2 West 32nd Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, and is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight (@hongchuncheonnyc)