Yes, You Can Find Grilled Chicken in Korea
Every month we pick a neighborhood and talk about one of the best food spots there each Monday. This month, we’re looking at Matjibs in Hannamdong. While it’s best known as the quietly trendy area next to Itaewon, among the cafes and craft beer bars are a few incredible food spots with a ton of integrity.
I’m a grilled chicken guy. There, I said it. Yes, fried chicken is great – if it’s good, it’s crispy, greasy, salty, maybe even tasty. Definitely a treat. So look, I’m not shitting on fried chicken. I have no problem with fried chicken. But between fried and grilled… it may be an unpopular opinion, but for me, no contest. Grilling does something to chicken that frying can’t achieve, adding a smoky, charcoal flavor that can cook in sauces or rubs, locking in juices without the help of added oil.
Grilled chicken is really, really hard to find in Korea. The standard, of course, is fried, but if you’re not feeling that, most of the chicken jibs offer baked chicken, which usually takes longer and isn’t particularly good. If you want a chicken that’s cooked well, tasty, and not a full on fried chicken, it’s easy to feel like you’re out of options.
But Hanbang Tongdak Gui [한방통닭구이] brings the options. They have three chicken varieties: roasted [구이], salt grilled [소금숯불구이], and sauce grilled [양념숯불구이]. Roasting is done on a giant rotisserie rack that greets you as soon as you walk in; grilling is done over charcoal fires somewhere out back. Let’s start with the rotisserie roasted chicken.
As the name suggests (tongdak = whole chicken), chickens are cooked and served whole. I’m not sure how long the rotisserie chickens are roasted for, but next time I go I’m going to ask, because, here’s the thing. I’ve been to a lot of places in the world. I’ve eaten a lot of chicken – I mean, really, a lot. A lot of the places I’ve been to don’t serve fried chicken almost exclusively, the way Korea seems to. And yet, whoever is in charge of the roasting at Hanbang is just nailing it. They are single handedly improving Korea’s status as preparers of roast chicken. I mean, this shit is near perfect. The skin is perfectly brown, and crispy! Lightly seasoned, like some salt, maybe some soy sauce. Underneath, the meat is ethereally juicy and soft. Parts of it may actually look undercooked, but don’t worry, it’s the opposite – it’s cooked just right.
Do you understand how hard it is to get crispy skin on a chicken just from roasting? Do you get how much finesse it takes to but a whole chicken in a hot box for a few hours and not dry it out? This is true chicken mastery, maybe even wizardry. They nailed it.
And inside – oh, fuck – in an ode to samgyetang [삼계탕], or maybe just the Korean spirit as a whole, the inside is stuffed with sticky rice, dates, garlic, etc. Unbelievable. Just take a second and imagine how, as these chicken roast on a spit, slowly, for hours, all of the juices centralize, saturating not only the meat but the rice in the middle. Now imagine what the rice tastes like. Yeah. Fuck your fried chicken.
We haven’t even started talking about the charcoal grilled chicken. I assume that these chickens are first spit roasted, then finished off on a grill, because charcoal grilling a whole chicken takes forever. I could be wrong – with the amount of chicken skill in this place, they may be doing it. What I will say is that there’s no char, no grill marks. A little disappointing, but wait. The charcoal imparts the smoky taste, and extra crispiness on the skin that roasting can’t quite achieve. The salt variety is, honestly, not quite that much of an improvement over the OG rotisserie one to order in addition, but if you’re getting two, rotisserie and yangnyum is definitely the move. Their sauce is a sweet, reddish barbecue sauce, topped with chopped scallions and sesame seeds. Both are stuffed with sticky rice – both are dank.
Banchan-wise, you’re looking at the standards: kimchi, pickled radish, cold beansprout soup. Dipping sauces (which any chicken should have) are a red sweet and spicy barbecue, probably the same yangnyum they baste the grilled chicken with, a sweet mustardy sauce, and salt and pepper.
I’ve said plenty about how good this chicken is, so I think you get it. But there is one more point I want to make. If you think about it, the concept of a whole grilled chicken is literally perfect for Korea’s communal eating and drinking culture. You’re with a handful of people, you want some food, you want some beers, you don’t want fried chicken because you don’t want to feel like shit (c’mon, you know it’s true). You round your people up, sit down, order two, maybe three chickens, and just tear into them. There’s something carnally satisfying about devouring a whole grilled animal, and this is truly the spot to do it.
Hanbang’s rotisserie chicken is 18,000 won, and the charcoal grilled are 19 and 22, respectively. A chicken properly butchered has 8 pieces: 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 legs. So, for the rotisserie chicken, each piece is 2,000 and a quarter. Really not bad. Also, by the way, no big deal, but they’re open till 2am every day. So basically, you can drink beer and eat chicken as late as you want. No surprise that celebrities come through regularly and there’s often a wait.
Yeah, fried chicken is good. When you’re sick of it, now you know where to go.
If you’ve been to this banging chicken spot, let us know what you think. For another Hannam-dong matjib, check out last week’s piece on this next level BBQ joint.
Photo credits: @v.taey, @yj_feel, @mojave.ghost