If you go, you gotta try the 'fire chicken'
SEOUL — Like most great stories, my first experience with really spicy food started off innocently enough when some friends asked me to join them for dinner in Itaewon.
Yes, they said, dinner would be a bit spicy. I should explain that I was raised on a boringly bland Midwest menu, where getting crazy meant adding garlic to a dish. Barbecue potato chips usually are too spicy for me.
Fast-forward 30 minutes and I’m sweating buckets, face bright red, chugging anything I can in some vain attempt to make the burning stop. It was my first trip to Hongcho One and my first taste of its incredibly addictive signature dish booldak, translated very accurately as “fire chicken.”
Fast-forward 18 months and I’m still going back for the punishment. Why? Because the chicken is that good.
It’s really difficult to explain, but the smoky flavor lurking behind the heat makes it a dish that I can’t stop thinking about.
Hongcho is easy to find, perched on the second floor overlooking the biggest intersection on the Itaewon drag. It sits on the corner, directly across the street from both Burger King and Paris Baguette and diagonal from the Hamilton Hotel.
They offer an English language menu that’s almost as much fun to read as the chicken is to eat.
“Tender and tasteful leg meat is directly broiled,” reads the description of the booldak, which goes for about $12 a dish.
If you want to dial down the spiciness level try ssamdak, the same chicken served on a bed of mozzarella cheese and vegetables, in which “softness embraces the spiciness.” This dish runs about $15.
You can also try seafood dishes doused in the same sauce, but I haven’t braved one of those yet.
I am sure to order a dish of nuroong jitahang, a $5 bowl of rice soup that — don’t tell anyone — I use to wash a bit of the spice off the chicken before eating it.
On my last trip, I joined a motley group of foreigners who argued over whether the chicken is actually hot or I’m just a wimp. One friend, John Brandt, brushed off my claims.
“Our homemade chili is hotter than this in Montana,” Brandt said. But, he admitted, “we used to make some damn hot chili.”
The only Korean person at our table, Yoo Kyeong-mi, fought for me.
“My lips hurt,” she said around a forkful of chicken. “Yeah—it’s too spicy.”
Hongcho One, Seoul
Prices: Food runs between $12 and $15, with each dish feeding two to three. Beer is cheap.
Specialties: The spiciest food you can imagine. “Fire chicken” is the signature dish but you can also find spicy seafood.
English menu: Yes, with lots of photos.
Clientele: Loud and kind of rowdy as the night gets later.