Heejin Kim notices her iPhone buzzing as she walks into the restaurant. It’s Tuesday morning, mid-May, at Chicken 649 in Victoria, B.C.—just two months after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the implementation of lockdown measures across North America.
Inside, seats in the dining room are gone. Next to the kitchen, takeout boxes are stacked on top of each other. A protective covering is placed over a PIN pad on a folding table two metres away from the cash register.
Heejin grabs the phone. The message is from the previous Saturday night and reads, “We loved your chicken!”
With COVID-19 disrupting life for people across Canada, Heejin is grateful that her customers are enjoying the fried chicken that comforted her family for years in South Korea. It may have taken time for this dream to come to fruition, but she’s the happiest cook in the world.
Since immigrating to Canada in 2013, Heejin and Jack Kim dreamed of opening a Korean fried chicken restaurant. Like many families in South Korea, they ordered fried chicken takeout at least twice a month—but in Fort St. John, B.C., where they lived during their first two years in Canada, Heejin and Jack struggled to find a Canadian comfort food to satisfy their fried chicken craving.
“[Korean fried chicken] is a kind of soul food for Koreans, like poutine for Canadians,” she told The Pigeon in an email. “When Koreans have something to celebrate, they likely place an order of [fried chicken].”
Last year, a Korea Economic Daily report found 87,000 fried chicken restaurants in South Korea alone. In fact, there are more Korean fried chicken restaurants in South Korea than there are Subway and McDonald’s outlets combined in the entire world.
There are a few aspects that separate Korean fried chicken from its American counterpart, namely its double-fry technique, texture, and density. The chicken is initially fried once to seal the meat’s juices, and then again to form a crunchy exterior with less grease. This creates a product that is extra crunchy and less greasy than American fried chicken. While American-made chicken tends to rely on a dense layered exterior, Korean fried chicken uses a thin layer of batter, while maintaining a very crunchy exterior.
The delicate layer insulates the chicken inside the batter, while the second fry gives it an unexpected crunch—a crackle and crisp that a North American customer might associate with a chain like Popeyes.
In Canada, the 2016 census reported over 198,000 people of Korean descent living in Canada. That same year, the CBC profiled a Korean fried chicken restaurant based in Toronto, Ont., The Fry, to uncover their Korean fried chicken wings recipe and shed light on its rising popularity in Canada.
Four years later, The Fry has grown to fill five locations in the Toronto area and two in Ottawa, Ont.
Cecilia Peterson and Crystal Rie, digital projects archivists with the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., co-wrote a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article highlighting how Korean fried chicken gained international popularity.
Fried chicken was a staple dish in the American South during the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result, the American presence in the Korean War during the 1950s helped ignite a passion for fried chicken abroad.
“Fried chicken—it came from the US, but [Koreans] made it their own,” said Peterson in an interview with The Pigeon. “The most accessible way of connecting [to different communities] is through food because travel is not accessible to everybody—or even available right now.”
In their Smithsonian article, the two documented how a Korean-American couple, Karen and Young-Jun Park, opened a Korean fried chicken restaurant in Washington, D.C., after working in a fish and chip shop for nearly 20 years. The Park’s restaurant quickly became a must-visit in their neighbourhood, with the Washington Post giving it a favourable review in 2014.
“They felt very limited by their [job] options,” says Peterson. “When we interviewed them, they drove it home that it was important for them to get to a place where they felt comfortable making their own food for people.”
When moving to a new country, it’s common for many immigrants to struggle with identity and how they can express themselves in a new place. When they first moved to Canada, Heejin and Jack split their time working at a sushi restaurant and a grocery deli.
Heejin was a baker in South Korea, but the two had little experience in restaurant management until Jack was promoted to general manager of the sushi restaurant where he worked.
Then, in 2015, the couple moved to Victoria and discussed opening a Korean fried chicken restaurant of their own. But before they could, Heejin and Jack needed to learn more about the Korean fried chicken cooking process. Jack travelled back to South Korea to learn recipes from their family and friends who owned fried chicken restaurants themselves.
Finally, the two officially opened Chicken 649 in 2017. Their menu features several flavours, including original fried chicken, Yangnyeom (sweet and spicy), soy garlic, sweet honey, and three-cheese. On most nights a line stretches out the door, and on the weekends many people order three or four boxes of chicken at once.
“We gave it a shot and were absolutely blown away,” said Shane Muldrew, a first-time customer from Victoria who tried Chicken 649’s Yangyneom and soy garlic chicken earlier this spring.
“I had read a couple of reviews and I was quite impressed: family operated, they’re new Canadians and they’re working hard. They’re bright, friendly, and uplifting.”
The Kims aren’t the only couple who have found success introducing Canadian customers to Korean fried chicken. In Ontario, Shim and Jae Jung’s fried chicken venture has brought them similar success.
Originally, Shim Jung was supposed to live in Canada for only six months to learn English before moving back to South Korea. Once she met her eventual husband Jae, who had moved to Canada himself in 1995, the two settled down to start a family in Toronto.
About five years ago, the Jung’s moved to the Wasaga Beach area, and as their children got older, Shim found herself looking for ways to occupy her time. Remembering how popular fried chicken was back home, she decided to start a shop in Canada.
Although Shim didn’t have much experience in the food industry herself, she had family members who were chefs in South Korea and relied on their expertise to start Honey Monster Gourmet Crispy Chicken in 2018.
Since Wasaga Beach has a population divided between locals and tourists, Shim and Jae started Honey Monster as a seasonal summer business with the intention of catering to tourists on the beach. Despite their reliance on tourists’ patronage, they’ve also received strong local support as well.
For the last two summers, Shim and Jae opened Honey Monster around Victoria Day weekend in late May. As they adjusted to new safety measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they delayed their 2020 opening to June 12—but had one or two community members phoning them almost every day wondering when they planned on re-opening.
One frequent customer who had to wait for Honey Monster to re-open was Greg Gignac.
Gignac, who’s lived in the Wasaga Beach community for 20 years, normally roams from restaurant to restaurant on the lakefront in the summer, chatting with owners and trying all kinds new of food. There’s a shawarma place he likes and a vending machine that offers pizza—out of a slot, hot, in a box within three minutes—that fascinates him and apparently “isn’t that bad.”
When he first saw Honey Monster, he was intrigued. Gignac tried their crispy chicken sandwich on his initial visit, and as he talks about it over the phone two years later, you can practically hear him drooling.
“I had the sandwich and thought, ‘Ohhh that’s pretty good,’” said Gignac.
Gignac frequented Honey Monster so often that he developed a friendship with Shim and Jae. On many summer evenings, he would visit the restaurant and discuss food ideas with the owners. One night, while scanning their menu and noticing that they also served poutine, Gignac had an idea.
“I said, ‘You got poutine and you got chicken—what about chicken poutine?’”
Fans of the idea, Shim and Jae decided to name the dish after Gignac.
Honey Monster nearly doubled their sales from 2018 to 2019, and “Greg’s Crispy Chicken Poutine” became a bestseller—a blend of Canadian and Korean cultures that illuminated the rising popularity of Korean fried chicken in Canada.
Jae believes the quality of their food is one of the main reasons their restaurant has been able to succeed. He says unlike some of their fast-food fried chicken competitors, Honey Monster brines their own fresh chicken and creates their batter from scratch. Along with three or five-piece Korean fried chicken dinners, they also serve their chicken on sandwiches, salads, and with waffles.
“It’s interesting that people are noticing our background,” Jae said over the phone. “They recognize Korean food and it’s pretty neat. I think if you ask any Korean they all will have memories of getting tongdak [fried chicken].”
Even before the pandemic, Heejin and her family know what it’s like to have their normal routine disrupted. For four years before they opened Chicken 649 outside Victoria’s downtown core, they didn’t have a source for Korean fried chicken in Canada.
Now, along with their restaurant, there are two other Korean fried chicken restaurants in Victoria receiving positive reviews online.
Especially now, Heejin is proud that her food helped integrate her family into Canada’s multicultural society and provided a sense of normalcy and comfort.
“When I just arrived in Canada, I was a watcher and learner of Canadian culture,” she says. “But since we started our business, we have felt that we’ve become a part of Canada with [Korean fried chicken]. Because Canada is [a] mosaic culture and we have added another colour [to] the picture.”