Not too long ago, I received a message from Adrian Miller — writer, barbecue judge and executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches — asking if I knew of any restaurants in town that offered Korean fried chicken. I was stumped, but after some furious Googling, I found one sure answer: Aurora's Funny Plus. Miller's extensive knowledge of African-American culinary history (and, by extension, American food itself) is on clear display in his James Beard Award-winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, and a good portion of the book explores how the ingredients and techniques from the cuisines of other continents arrived on American shores and became integrated into soul food. I assumed he was curious about how a soul food staple like fried chicken had made the leap from the U.S. to Korea — and then back again through recent immigrants from that country, so I organized a group to find out first-hand, hoping to glean some knowledge from friends.
Unfortunately, Miller had to cancel due to a professional engagement, but I was joined by adventurous eater and Project Angel Heart executive chef Jon Emanuel and Denver cookbook and restaurant guide author Ruth Tobias, both of whom have a good deal more experience cooking and eating Korean cuisine than I have. And thanks to both of them, I was able to wrap my head around an American-Korean-American dish, plus a couple of other treats we sampled in the packed and lively beer hall.
I call it a beer hall because, although you won't find the words "Funny Plus" in English anywhere on the exterior of the restaurant, the word "Hof" — a standard word in Korea to designate drinking establishments — glows prominently on the eatery's sign. And the ambiance inside is not unlike a beer hall, with groups of mostly young Koreans sharing beer, soju and large platters and bowls of food in a festive atmosphere complete with a line out the door and servers hustling between tables to keep the food and drink coming.
Fried chicken isn't the only borrowed bar food you'll find at Funny Plus; the menu also includes French fries and gooey concoctions of corn and cheese and army-base stew (budae-jjigae), a comfort-food holdover from lean post-war years that often includes hot dogs or ham.
Fried chicken was the mission this time,though, so we started with an order each of plain and sauced bird. The plain fried chicken, which came with a bowl of sweetish, mildly spicy sauce, sported a thick and crunchy coating with a slight orange tint from a seasoning mixed into the batter, but the chicken was otherwise surprisingly similar to its American counterparts. The pieces — mostly drumsticks, thighs and back portions — were petite and easy to handle.
The spicy version was nearly identical, except doused in the same sauce and freckled with black and white sesame seeds. Both versions displayed the hallmarks that fried chicken aficionados seek: moist, steaming meat beneath a crunchy coating that doesn't dislodge despite vigorous chomping. The pieces were neither oily nor soggy, although the sauced version did not maintain its crunch during the course of the meal. The better choice is clearly to get the un-sauced chicken and dip as you eat.
Along with the chicken, our server brought a few banchan, the little side dishes that serve alternately as condiments, palate cleansers or textural contrasts, depending on the food at hand, explaining that the little cubes of pickled white radish go particularly well with fried chicken.
After the fried chicken and interspersed with sips of soju from tiny cups, we shared knife-cut noodles with clams (which came as a milky soup topped with a fine julienne of seaweed) and an enormous pan of ddeokbokki, a rice-cake casserole that the server set into the recessed grill on our table so that the sauce simmered throughout our dinner. Although it was impossible to tell if the noodles in the soup had in fact been cut by hand, they were fat and chewy and entirely satisfying, coated with a mild, viscous broth that held just the right amount of briny clam flavor.
Tobias had picked the ddeokbokki as an example of Korean street food; I'd never had it before, but she was surprised at the variety of extra goodies — boiled eggs, crimped ramen-style noodles, little pork dumplings — that Funny Plus threw in along with the standard rice cakes (chewy, finger-sized cylinders like the fattest rice noodles you've ever seen) and fish cakes (thin and toothsome strips without much of a hint of fish at all). Everything was slathered in a rust-colored sauce with a funky note I couldn't put my finger on, but that Emanuel explained came from gochujang, a fermented red chile paste that's a staple in Korean cooking. After dinner, we strolled through the aisles at H-Mart next door to Funny Plus and he pointed out several brands of gochujang in varying degrees of heat.
Between bites of fried chicken and slurps of noodles washed down with more soju, we talked about the merits of Korean fried chicken, as executed by the kitchen at Funny Plus, and agreed that we would have to return with Miller. For that matter, we'd have to tell all of our friends and come back again and again with different groups. Funny Plus is just that kind of restaurant, the kind you want to tell everyone about because it's such a delightfully boisterous combination of neighborhood bar and uniquely Korean restaurant. The sounds and smells of sizzling food from tabletop grills, the constant turning of tables that brought in younger crowds as the night grew later, the dim lighting and inescapable booze ads on nearly every surface, and the laughing server who treated us like regulars all combined to make this a casual and entirely comfortable experience, despite the unfamiliar menu. Fried chicken, a dish ingrained in the childhood memory of virtually every American, turns out to be the bridge that connects faraway Korea to the familiar suburbs of Denver.