For decades, America's fried chicken scene was dominated by the Southern style of the food popularized by chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken (now officially known simply as KFC), Popeyes and Church's. Then, in the mid-2010s, a new chicken trend began creeping onto the scene that celebrated another Southern-born flavor profile: Nashville hot chicken.
Music City Hot Chicken opened in Fort Collins in 2016, paving the way for an influx of hot chicken joints. The obsession with the spicy bird reached a peak in the Denver area over the past two years, as both local spots like Blazing Chicken
and national brands such as Dave's Hot Chicken
debuted and multiplied — and Music City has a location in town now, too
, inside TRVE Brewing.
But Nashville hot's spicy reign in the Mile High has some serious competition these days. "KFC stands for 'Korean fried chicken' now," says Alex Lee. He's one of the franchise owners who recently brought popular South Korean brand bb.q Chicken
— the name stands for Best of the Best Quality, and the chain has over 3,500 locations worldwide — to the Denver area, where three bb.q Chicken outposts have opened in the last six months. Alex Lee owns the Capitol Hill location and was the project manager for the first spot in Aurora; there's also a location in Lone Tree and another under construction in Littleton.
"If you asked me to do this ten years ago, I would have said no," Alex Lee admits. "But ten years ago, Korean culture really lifted up [in the United States]. Fifty percent of the marketing is done for me due to the culture's popularity."
bb.q Chicken has over a dozen sauce options.
Known as the Hallyu movement, or Korean Wave, the rise of South Korean culture in the U.S. reached the coasts first, driven largely by pop music (with acts such as PSY and K-pop boy band BTS) and quickly expanding to other aspects, including television (Squid Game
), movies and, of course, food. "I used to live in L.A., where Korean fried chicken was pretty normal," says Henry Lee (no relation to Alex). "Then I moved [to Denver] and realized the Korean fried chicken scene was horrible. There were some mom-and-pop places only."
After researching different brands, Henry Lee opened the area's first location of Bonchon
in Central Park in 2018. "I wanted to change a lot of people's opinions and show that Korean food is a lot more than just Korean barbecue," he recalls. "It was crazy; it took off." There are now three Bonchons open in Colorado, with two more locations in Westminster and Colorado Springs in the works. Henry Lee signed a deal to open twelve, so he welcomes customers' suggestions for where they'd like to see others open.
Like bb.q Chicken, Bonchon got its start in South Korea, but it's most popular these days in other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. At first glance, the differences between the two may not be obvious, but both Alex Lee and Henry Lee agree that each Korean fried chicken brand offers something different.
Korean fried chicken is generally known for its supremely crunchy coating, which is often the result of a double-frying method. The chicken is then usually (but not always) coated in a sauce. Bone-in wings are one of the most popular orders, but most places offer drumsticks and boneless wings, too.
bb.q Chicken is one of Korea's most popular chains.
Bb.q Chicken is all about the sauce — it offers over a dozen flavors, ranging from more traditional options like Honey Garlic and Hot Spicy to the powdered-cheese-coated Cheesling and Hot Mala, inspired by a traditional Chinese seasoning. Each piece is generously coated using a tossing method.
At Bonchon, the focus is more on texture, with chicken available in only two flavors: Soy Garlic and Spicy. In order to keep the light and crisp coating intact, the sauce is hand-brushed onto each piece, allowing it to absorb and become part of the coating itself. "I think that is why people love our chicken so much," Henry Lee says, adding that while this approach is a bit more time-consuming, the technique is one of the two reasons he opted to franchise with Bonchon instead of bb.q Chicken.
The other was Bonchon's more expansive selection of non-chicken dishes. Whle bb.q Chicken offers some additional menu items, including fried rice and several versions of ddeokbokki (rice cakes simmered in a sauce), chicken is clearly the focus for that chain. Bonchon's menu, though, has an extensive selection that draws customers who aren't fans of fried chicken, Henry Lee points out. Among the many options are steamed buns loaded with roasted pork belly, plus Korean tacos, takoyaki, japchae (a rice noodle dish) and Henry Lee's favorite, bulgogi made with thinly sliced ribeye served on a sizzling skillet.
Bonchon's wings have a supremely crispy coating.
While bb.q and Bonchon are two of the most recognizable names in the global Korean fried chicken game, local restaurateurs have jumped on the trend. J.W. Lee's Seoul Hospitality Group
had opened nearly a dozen restaurants in Denver and Aurora, including Seoul Korean BBQ Hot Pot, when the owner decided to expand his offerings. "I saw the changing of the popularity of Korean food. It was very limited before, but then I saw Korean barbecue growing dramatically. That's why I thought it was a good time to introduce Korean fried chicken," he explains.
In March 2021, he opened Mono Mono on Blake Street. The concept was founded in New York City by MJ Chung, but Seoul Hospitality owns the Colorado division, which now includes two locations plus the fast-casual offshoot Mono GoGo, which recently opened in Lakewood, and Mono Mono Brewery in Lafayette
(its beers are served at all Mono Mono locations). J.W. Lee plans to add two more locations this year, on West Coal Mine Avenue in Littleton and in Highlands Ranch.
While franchise owners like Alex Lee and Henry Lee must stick with standard company recipes, J.W. Lee enjoys the freedom of owning his own brand. "I'm a chef, so I want more control," he notes. "At Mono Mono, we're creating with our own tastes and can have our own menus and create unique dishes." He appreciates customer feedback, and is always discussing new ideas with his chefs.
For its chicken, Mono Mono first marinates the meat, then coats it in batter and fries it to order using a special single-frying technique that results in a crackly skin; its sauce comes in a mild or spicy version. Along with wings, tenders, popcorn chicken and drumsticks, Mono Mono offers a lineup of starters that includes corn cheese, dumplings, bulgogi nachos and kimchi fries. But the sandwiches have really been gaining in popularity, J.W. Lee notes.
At Vons Chicken, you can pick your flavor and spice level.
Korean fried chicken sandwiches are also gaining steam at another local startup, Wing Wok
, which debuted in Centennial last July. The brand was created by James Park, the former CEO of Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh. "The concept was in his mind for years," says Wing Wok partner and proprietor Brian Gunning.
Before launching their own Korean fried chicken joint, Gunning says, the team tried other brands' offerings and then perfected their own recipe, which is 100 percent gluten-free and comes with four sauce options. (You can also get your chicken "naked.") The batter is made with rice flour, which results in a "very light but super crispy and crunchy" coating, Gunning explains.
Wing Wok will soon open a second location in Greenwood Village, which, like Centennial, does not have a particularly diverse food scene. "Seeing that lack of other cultures south of the city was part of that motivation," Gunning notes.
Park's background is in franchising, and while "franchising the concept is always on our mind," Gunning says, "we're focused on making a repeatable model that we're proud of."
Natascha Hess, the owner of Ginger Pig
, is a big fan of Korean fried chicken; since adding a version to her menu last year, it's overtaken char sui as the restaurant's best seller. Her KFC go-to is Vons Chicken
in Aurora, another Korean chain that has just one location in Colorado (so far) and is also known for its oven-roasted chicken. The powdered Honey Butter flavor at Vons is one of Henry Lee's personal favorites, too.
Aurora's Angry Chicken, which opened in 2017, is another popular spot for KFC, while Funny Plus, next to the Aurora H Mart
, has been serving it up by the platter for over a decade — and is a lively spot for a late-night fix. And that's just a handful of the options in a category that's poised to really fly over the next few years.
"I eat our chicken almost every day," Henry Lee admits. "The crispiness is addicting."
And it seems the rest of Denver is hooked on KFC, too.