The Real KFC (Korean Fried Chicken)

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Jul. 6, 2011

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Wing It! The spicy chicken at Soho isn't for amateurs.

Photo by Ryan Strand

Cafe Soho on out-there Cheltenham Avenue has been the recipient of serious love lately, some well-earned attention. Streets is talkin’, and what was once a whispered-about niche spot known only by a few ardent fans happy to keep this place their secret forever is now squinting in the blinding spotlight shined on them courtesy of a name-drop by Zahav/Xochitl/Percy Street BBQ chef Michael Solomonov in Food + Wine magazine. The buzz is deafening, and Soho is in the midst of a transformation from relative unknown to much gabbed-about superstar amongst foodies and trend worshippers.

What they’re gabbing about is the unbelievably delicious Korean fried chicken, well worth the drive out to this unexpectedly loungy space—all reds and blacks and shiny surfaces set to the beat of thumping hip-hop—in the middle of an otherwise pretty depressing Northeast Philly block.

The mysteries of this meticulously prepaired Eastern bird are legendary among its fans. It’s twice-fried, each time at a lower temperature than its Yankee counterpart, and sheathed in a whisper-thin layer of flour that allows the skin to crisp up as much as the crust. The double trip through the hot oil and requisite resting period between the two allows the meat to remain impossibly moist and the skin shatteringly delicate. Best of both worlds.

An order of plain fried chicken brings a foil-lined dish of 20 pieces that handily disproves the lie that Philly is a city free of decent wings. They’re excellent on their own and even better when dragged through the bowl of accompanying sauce, a pretty straightforward mix of black vinegar, scallion, garlic and soy that’s a little sweet, a little tart and a little salty in ways that never overpower the flavor of the chicken.

You can get soy-garlic and spicy versions of the fried chicken too. Both will make you curl your toes and force you a bit further back in your deeply cushioned seat.

Soy-garlic chicken finds a balance between sweet and tart that hasn’t been seen since Cyndi Lauper’s heyday. Each bite leaves your lips barely sticky, a fine glaze of salty, sweet-nutty film on your teeth. You’ll want to rinse this down with a bottle of OB (Oriental Brewery), a lager brewed in South Korea, to clear the path for your next hit. The OB is a good match here for the same reason Bud can be a good match for fried chicken—it’s crisp, refreshing and lets the food play the starring role. It ain’t great beer, but it’s great with fried food.

The spicy chicken is menacingly red, and not for amateurs. Still, for all the heat it generates, the flavor of delicate chicken is front and center. Most dishes come in orders of 20, though you have the option of doing a 10-10 split with the flavored versions.

For all its avian acumen, Cafe Soho also does itself proud with soups—just be careful not to take up too much precious chicken room in your stomach with the stuff. An order of spicy seafood stew is a nice starter, its roasted-tomato-tasting base reminiscent of some kind of Korean minestrone. It’s packed with a generous menagerie of seafood, each mussel and squid and the rest cooked to optimal tenderness. It’s expensive, though, at $15.99. A better deal is the dduk lamyun, rice cake and ramen, with its starchy and well-rounded broth.

Adventurous eaters, or anyone just wanting something to snack on while waiting for the chicken to finish its laps through the oil in the kitchen, would do well to try the dried squid on offer at Soho. There’s no hiding what this is, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But if you’re into the sweet funkiness of old, dry seafood, you’ll love it. Paired with a cold, crisp beer, it’s an amazing, unique food experience.

Practically everything at Soho sings, only a slightly overdone warai pork cutlet didn’t quite shine. But that hardly matters: The chicken here is worth all the buzz, all the foamed-mouth obsession. Its magnetic pull, its ballooning reputation, its ability to draw eaters from all over the city—it’s all well-founded, its stripes solidly earned. If you like fried chicken, this is your manifest destiny.

468 W. Cheltenham Ave.

Cuisine: Korean, with a serious focus on the famous fried chicken.

Hours: Mon.-Fri., 3pm-2am; Sat., 1pm-2am; Sun., 1pm-midnight.

Price range: For the chicken, which is what it’s all about, it’s $20 for 20 pieces. Everything else is generally in the sub-$20 range.

Atmosphere: Energy and vibe to spare. Quite possibly the coolest chicken joint around.

Food: Fried-chicken Nirvana.

Service: Reasonably helpful, but don’t expect too much love and attention.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Cheltenham Charlie said... on Jul 6, 2011 at 12:45PM

“It's not in Cheltenham, nor is it in Northeast Philly. It is great, though.”

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2. Mr. Chicken said... on Jul 7, 2011 at 07:21AM

“cheltenham is literally 30 seconds away driving. stop being nitpicky.
I've been going to this place even before they sold chicken. When they started the bonchon style chicken, they used huge wings which was a good compensation for the price ($20 for 20). Within the past year or two they started using normal sized wings, and somehow I leave with the feeling of being satisfied but overcharged. For those unaware of the previous size of the wing pieces, the drummet could have been mistaken for a small chicken leg.

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3. Geno said... on Jul 7, 2011 at 08:44AM

“It's definitely the Northeast...”

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4. Geno said... on Jul 7, 2011 at 08:47AM

“oops, first poster was correct....not to nitpick haha”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jul 7, 2011 at 01:59PM

“It's in Oak Lane.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 8, 2011 at 12:01PM

“It's 468 West Cheltenham Ave, not East.”

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7. geograohy majors said... on Jul 11, 2011 at 02:32PM

“Hey guys, nobody gives a shit.”

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8. Philadelphia Weekly said... on Jul 12, 2011 at 10:24AM

“You're right, it's west. Thanks for pointing it out!”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jul 27, 2011 at 12:49PM

“Technically the area is called East Oak Lane and its not the NE or Cheltenham. I live a few blocks from Soho, & the food is the good, especially the wings particularly.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jun 24, 2013 at 11:32AM

“I've been in Philadelphia for 56 years. The area is and always has been EAST OAK LANE. Now this is from a Philly veteran so stop all the squabbling. If you were from Philly you would know that!”


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