With the big screen tuned to ESPN on audio mute, Seoul's simulacrum of Justin Timberlake works his plush vocal stylings through the ceiling speakers at Oriental B.B.Q. Chicken Town sans aural competition. At 10:30 on a school night, with half a bottle of cheap rice wine beginning to turn the muscles of your neck and shoulders to jelly, Korean boy pop has its own gooey magic, a yummy cloud of Axe body spray that sinks deep into your pleasure center. It's gratification that wobbles at the intersection of lush and forgettable, just like Korean fried chicken, the specialty at this homespun North Oakland beer and snack spot.
In food circles these days, there's talk of pleasure as an organizing political principle. Slow Food hoists its exquisitely embroidered flag of pleasure on the barricades of global revolution the imagined goodness of some totemic farmers' market peach as a rebuke to Big Agro, or of a knobbly little yellow-fleshed potato grown in some Tuscan valley for centuries, the essential ingredient for ethereally delicate gnocchi. But such a conversation breathes a thin and antiseptic air of rectitude weird, since it's about something as earthy, animal, and sticky as food.
Here at Oriental B.B.Q. Chicken Town, it's possible for two people to end up literally stinky with glazed-and-sticky deep-fried pleasure for just over twenty bucks. The Special Combo Number Two, which almost everyone orders, brings a half portion of yang nyeom chicken, the same of regular fried chicken, and a big-ass beer of your choosing. Well, as long as you choose from among three watery megafactory beers: MGD or its South Korean cognates, Hite and OB.
Call the place a restaurant for lack of a better word; it's a sort of cavernous pojangmacha, a Korean snacks-and-soju stall. This one's a stand-alone flanked on two sides by a parking lot. It turns its back to Telegraph Avenue and shrouds its windows in a double layer of always-closed bamboo blinds. Pretty much what you expect in a bar, only with the sun still up the diffused daylight makes the room seem slightly unreal, like some on-the-cheap movie set. You half expect to walk out the door to find nothing but banks of studio lights on a soundstage. But what shines here, apart from 1.7-liter bottles of cheap beer, are reasonably tasty, deeply satisfying platters of the Korean fried chicken known as tong dak.
What is it about tong dak that wrings such a sense of longing out of so many? In February, New York Times food writer Julia Moskin pondered what she called the Big Apple's "cult" of Korean-style fried bird. Word of Moskin's story ricocheted around Bay Area food posting sites like news of the last cook standing on Top Chef. Was the bicoastal phenomenon driven by some group memory of pleasure?
The husky charms of Oriental B.B.Q. Chicken Town only become clear late at night when most of the customers show up it's open till 2:00 a.m., so it's a post-study destination for Cal graduate students. Don't expect to eke anything like a real dinner from the menu, whose cover shows a sick-looking freaked-out chicken in flames. Not much non-poultry meat, and no veggies asking for those would be like expecting broccoli at a fish 'n' chips joint. The menu here focuses on hot mouthfuls to stoke drinking and soothe its consequences.
One early Saturday evening the love child of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson was laying down juicy Korean-language hooks all over a sparsely peopled Oriental B.B.Q. Chicken Town. The regular tong dak (Marinated Fried Chicken if you order it on its own, apart from Special Combo Number Two) was a platter of dark-brown pieces that stoked more than soothed their residual heat was fierce enough to scald tongues and palates. It consisted of drumettes, second wing joints, and miscellaneous boneless pieces with thin breading and skin that seemed to have had all the fat rendered out. Moskin explained this by describing Korean fried chicken's two-step cooking process, analogous to the double-dipping into the Fryolator of fancy restaurant pommes frites: the first dip to cook; the second, after draining and resting, to crisp.
Beneath coatings of reasonable crispness, these bird nuggets had plenty of moist flesh but evasive flavor. Neither flesh nor breading seemed to contain much seasoning, and the dominant note was the brown taste of a well-fried old-fashioned doughnut you know, the plain ones with craggy ridges offering maximum crust. Apart from a general chickeny-ness, the ton dak here evoked something like a concentration of the food-chemistry effect called browning reaction, in which a food's natural sugars caramelize to a subtle state of lip-smacking bitterness.
This plain fried chicken comes with condiments capable of perking up the darkest of browning reactions: a small dish of pickled jalapeños that breathed something earthy, like toasted sesame oil, and another of mustard sauce, a kind of poor man's Dijonnaise: sugary mayo, white vinegar, and mustard powder all mixed up to a shiny, happy yellow. And there was ton dak's ubiquitous accompaniment, a bowl of pickled cubed daikon. It was crisp, tart, and sweet, and gave off a healthy whiff of the radish's lovably stinky essence.
Allow me to point out the obvious, that there's a dimension to Korean fried chicken beyond taste. It's a mouth thing, something to be negotiated with tongue and teeth. You probe each bit gingerly until you find an opening. Prying flesh from bone, crushing tiny joints with incisors, and sucking bones clean while trying to avoid a scalding it's all part of the fun.
Either of the flavored fried chicken dishes provides plenty of superficial savor. Maybe too much. Kan jang ma neul chicken is the standard fry tossed in a wok with soy sauce and slices of fried garlic, a relatively subtle coating. Yang nyeom chicken wears a sugary red shellac of chile glaze it clings like the coating on a cinnamon Wrapple, and there's such a concentration of corn syrup you swear you can smell the cobs. The chile adds more perfume than bite, capsicums' cigarette-package fragrance without much heat.
Your chopsticks become clogged like stir sticks sheathed in latex gloss, your fingers feel sticky, and your bowl of rice, if you've asked for one, is a mess of tile-red stains, as though it's been smudged with melted Hot Tamale candies. Under the heady influence of beer and K-pop, it's easy to fancy yourself pretty much wallowing in pleasure.