There aren't many foods as addictive and all-consuming as crackly Korean fried chicken coated in a spicy-sweet glaze of yangnyeom sauce. After a late night spent devouring wings and drumsticks in one of the growing number of K-pubs in the metro area, you're likely to wake up in the pre-dawn hours with an urge to rummage through your fridge in search of leftovers. And you can thank the City of Aurora if your bleary-eyed treasure hunt turns up a box labeled Vons Chicken.
Vons is one of several Korean restaurant businesses that have landed in the U.S. recently. The company has a couple of chicken joints in Seoul (one of them open 24 hours), but many more in California, where Vons arrived in 2014. Not long after and several states away, Aurora launched its Office of International and Immigrant Affairs. Now four years old, the office is run by Ricardo Gambetta-Alvarado and Minsoo Song, who coordinate with the mayor's office and various other branches of the municipal government to court businesses located abroad to establish themselves here, as well as to provide assistance for immigrants hoping to start entrepreneurial efforts or nonprofit organizations in the area and help them navigate the tricky pathways of city bureaucracy.
"Our office was formed because the City of Aurora made the decision to make the city a destination for international business," Song explains.
"We have planned trips [to foreign countries] for the mayor...and we helped establish the first diplomatic post in the city, from El Salvador," Gambetta-Alvarado adds. The Consulate of El Salvador opened in Aurora in 2017, serving Salvadorans living in a four-state region; the Denver suburb was chosen in part because Salvadoran immigrants are among the top four foreign-born populations in the city.
Korean immigrants are another group in the top four and have become a growing presence in the community. "There are nearly 180 Korean-owned businesses in Aurora," Song points out, many of them concentrated along stretches of South Havana Street and East Mississippi Avenue.
As part of its mission to attract more businesses to Aurora, the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs took a recent trip to Korea, where Song met the CEO of Vons Chicken. "They were impressed by Aurora's large Korean community, but they also wanted to expand their market to the larger, non-Korean community," she explains.
Hyunsik Oh, a former executive with Vons who wanted to open his own franchise, was intrigued with Colorado, and so he came to Aurora to set up a new outpost of the chicken chain. "For newcomers, it's hard to navigate all the permitting," Song says, especially when there's a language barrier. "We helped connect them with local government agencies."
Song notes that her office has also assisted Aurora's Small Business Development Center in the development of Mason's Dumplings, a Southern California restaurant opening soon on East Montview Boulevard. The property owner leasing to Mason's primarily speaks Korean, so was happy to get help coordinating with contractors working on building renovations. The office is providing similar services to a new Mexican and Latin American shopping plaza being built at East Colfax Avenue and Chambers Road.
Vons Chicken opened at 12101 East Iliff Avenue in December, timed perfectly to coincide with an award for the Aurora department that helped bring more Korean fried chicken to town. The efforts of Gambetta-Alvarado and Song earned the 2019 Outstanding Government Resource Award from World Denver, an organization that brings about 600 international visitors to the city each year to explore business opportunities. World Denver recognized the office for its "policy briefings for foreign leaders in the areas of immigration policy, international municipal exchanges and immigrant integration issues," and for international achievements such as attracting the Consulate of El Salvador and Vons Chicken.
While you can't get Salvadoran cuisine at the Consulate, you can certainly get your fix of Korean fried chicken at Vons. The restaurant is less of a K-pub in the style of Funny Plus or Thank Sool Pocha (though a full liquor license was recently approved) and more of a quick-service eatery like Angry Chicken or Bonchon (another international chain). But once Vons began serving alcohol, the restaurant added full table service, so the order counter with the big digital menus is only there for takeout customers.
Once you're ready to order, spicy is definitely the way to go; the yang-nyum (as it's spelled here) fried chicken will fetch a wallop of heat that you won't soon forget. This style isn't as sticky or sugary as some of the competition, but the kitchen pours the sauce on thick, so say yes when your server offers you a pair of plastic gloves. For milder options, the original (with five-spice), the soy-garlic or the padak (piled with a nest of scallions) are all tasty; the honey-butter and cheddar options are a little on the weird side.
Vons also does oven-baked chicken, something you won't find at too many other places; the Red Burn is colorfully self-descriptive, and the soy-black vinegar baked chicken is definitely worth ordering if you're willing to forgo fried. Sides include sweet-potato fries, mandoo dumplings and kimchi fried rice. The latter seems a little overpriced at $5.99; for the same amount, the spicy rice cake (a simplified version of tteokbokki) is a more satisfying choice.
Vons took over a space that had held a number of Korean eateries over the years, most recently Soban (an excellent Los Angeles transplant that never caught on) and Black Pearl Bar & Grill (named for Johnny Depp's pirate ship). It's now open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). Call 720-845-2784 or visit vonschickenaurora.com for more details.