MAPPED: Asian fried chicken crawl, 6 different Waze

KCRW's Abbie Fentress Swanson and Camellia Tse made the rounds, drumstick by drumstick and wing by wing, and mapped Jonathan Gold's world of Asian fried chicken in LA.

For this week’s restaurant review, Jonathan Gold takes a detour from his usual one-stop shop to share his six favorite Asian fried chicken spots in Los Angeles. Since we take our work extremely seriously here at KCRW, we decided to try each chicken joint he recommended. Without further ado, here are our musings from the crawl. We recruited food photographer-filmmaker Stan Lee to help us with the documentation (and the eating) of so much rapid-fire fried chicken.

12:00 NOON – NIGHT+MARKET Song (Silver Lake)

Night + Market Song's Fried Chicken Sandwich by Stan Lee
The fried chicken sandwich at NIGHT + MARKET Song is a picture-perfect tower of white bread, ranch dressing, tomato, crispy fried chicken, papaya slaw, jalapeño and cilantro. What could go wrong? (Photo by Stan Lee)

The next time you feel like playing hooky from work, we recommend swinging by NIGHT + MARKET Song for lunch. That way, you skip the dinner line and still get to try Kris Yenbamroong’s killer fried chicken sandwich. Yenbamroong got the idea for the sandwich from Naeng Noi, his favorite morning market vendor in Chiang Rai, Thailand. When he got back to LA, Yenbamroong whomped up some sandwiches for a staff meal. “We had a bunch of chicken brining, so I bought some white bread buns — we use the same supplier as In-N-Out Burger — whipped up some ranch dressing and pounded out a little som tum (green papaya salad) with a mortar and pestle. I assembled the sandwiches, we ate them and it quickly became obvious that they needed to be on the menu.” Night + Market Song’s fried chicken sandwiches are only listed on the lunch menu. But we’re pretty sure Yenbamroong will send one out of the kitchen for you at dinner, white hamburger bun, ranch dressing, crispy fried chicken, green papaya slaw and all. Order up. —Abbie Fentress Swanson

Location: 3322 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90026 | (323) 665-5899

2:15 PM – Max’s Restaurant (Glendale)

Max's Fried Chicken
The whole chicken at Max’s weighs in at two-and-three-quarter pounds. It comes with a banana leaf and a handful of komate fries. We recommend a glass of calamansi juice to wash it down. (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW)

At Max’s from Manila, cooks have been frying birds the same way for 70 years. The restaurant chain is named after Maximo Gimenez who started making fried chicken in 1945 for American troops stationed in the Philippines. His niece, Ruby, came up with the recipe that’s still being used today. There are now more than 100 Max’s locations in the Philippines and 14 here in the US and Canada, including the Glendale location.

With that out of the way, here’s how the signature dish is made: Max’s starts with freshly-killed chickens that are marinated in a top-secret spice mix. (That’s not specific, I know. I asked but they’re not revealing any ingredients!) Birds that don’t weigh two-and-three-quarter pounds get returned to the supplier. If they’re any bigger, they won’t have enough spice per bite, says long-time restaurant manager Elvira Suavillo. Then they are deep-fried once until the thin skins turn shiny and blistering. The chicken arrived at the table on a no-frills plate with a banana leaf and handful of kamote fries. I pulled off a salty delicious drumstick and doused it with the sweet orange sauce Suavillo recommended — a mixture of Jufran banana sauce, Tabasco and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. To wash it down, cool sips of tangy calamansi juice. Enjoy with gusto! —Abbie Fentress Swanson

Location: 313 West Broadway, Glendale, CA 91204 | (818) 637-7751; or Puente Hills Mall, 1600 South Azusa Avenue, City of Industry, CA 91748 | (626) 363-1766

4:50 PM – Dongpo Restaurant (Arcadia)

Meizhou Dongpo - La Zi Ji
Finding the spicy, crispy la zi ji morsels in this dish is half the reward. Dongpo is based in Beijing but we only got funding for a trip to the Arcadia location. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Don’t be scared by the alarming number of fire engine red dried chile peppers piled high in the Chongqing-style la zi ji that is served at Dongpo Restaurant in Arcadia. After all, the Sichuan peppercorns are where the real tongue-numbing sanshool heat is. Use your chopsticks to pick through the plate and you’ll be rewarded with tender morsels of chicken, delicately crusted in a tingling mixture of salt, Sichuan heat and toasted sesame seeds. —Camellia Tse

Location: Westfield Santa Anita, 400 South Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia, CA, 91007 | (626) 538-4580; or Westfield Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Boulevard, Unit #200a, Los Angeles, CA | (310) 788-0120

7:30 PM – Merry’s House of Chicken (West Covina)

Merry's Ayam Goreng Kremesan by Stan Lee
Merry Istiowati’s ayam goreng is crusted with kremes, crunchy. (Photo by Stan Lee)

The San Gabriel Valley is full of small mom-and-pop joints, most of which never make it onto a foodie’s radar. Roll deep into the heart of West Covina and you’ll find Merry’s House of Chicken, situated in yet another unassuming strip mall beside a Thai restaurant, a boba shop, a nail shop, two Filipino restaurants and a Korean soondubu place. Chef and owner Merry Istiowati previously ran a culinary academy in Surabaya, Indonesia, before she and her family moved to the US. The house specialty at Merry’s is ayam goreng kremesan, which means “fried chicken with crispy bits. The chicken comes topped with a mound of kremes — deep-fried bits of crunchy seasoned rice flour batter — and homemade sambal terasi chile paste on the side. Cut the heat with a syrupy drizzle of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and you’ve got some serious umami-liciousness going on. —Camellia Tse

Location: 2550 Amar Road, West Covina, CA 91792 | (626) 965-0123

9:00 PM – Tokyo Fried Chicken Co. (Monterey Park)

Tokyo Fried Chicken Co. by Stan Lee
Armed with chopsticks in my right hand and a plastic glove on my left, I prepare to dig into this drumstick that’s been marinated overnight in soy, ginger and garlic. No usual wad of napkins required. (Photo by Stan Lee)

Of all the stops on our crawl, Tokyo Fried Chicken reminded me most of the chicken I grew up on. “I could be in Virginia right now on a sticky August day,” I thought, “not in a Monterey Park strip mall relishing a bite of a delicious crispy golden drumstick.” But one look at the plastic glove I was wearing on my left hand and the chopsticks in the other disabused me of that notion. We were indeed at Tokyo Fried Chicken in Monterey Park. The chicken here has other Japanese elements too: it is marinated in soy, ginger and garlic overnight and fried in rice bran oil. Then it comes to the table carefully stacked on a platter and looking a little like a game of Jenga. The sides surrounding the chicken are a mash-up of Japanese food and American Southern classics too: dashi-braised collard greens, candied carrots with a bacon soy-glaze, fried brussels sprouts seasoned with karashi mustard that are topped with goat cheese. Each order comes with a lacquered bento box of steaming chicken stock-infused rice and a side of tsukemono (pickled cabbage). We squirted our drumsticks and thighs with sweet and spicy ponzu sauce from plastic honey bears, then drank sake, beer and yuzu lemonade while BB King blared away on the stereo. All without ever getting our hands dirty.

Location: 122 South Atlantic Boulevard, Monterey Park, CA 91754 | (626) 282-9829

11:30 PM – OB Bear (Koreatown)

OB Bear - Fried Chicken
Two orders of fried chicken —regular and spicy — pickled daikon and a leek pancake, coming right up! (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

It’s now 10:45 at night and we’ve already had our fill of Thai, Filipino, Sichuan, Indonesian and a Japanese mash-up of Southern fried chicken. But what Asian fried chicken crawl would be complete without Korean fried chicken? So we press on. At least by now, traffic has subsided and it’s a straight shot along the 10 West from Monterey Park to Koreatown, where low-key watering holes like OB Bear on Seventh Street stay open well past midnight. We’ve got time for a few rounds of soju and makgeolli before the kitchen closes at 1 AM. The menu at OB Bear is standard Korean bar fare but their fried chicken game will take your night to new levels. Split straight down the middle with a cleaver, the Cornish hens are brined overnight and fried to order. No batter. This is what Korean fried chicken used to be in the days before Kyochon and Bonchon. What you get is a glistening, crackly chicken skin stretched tautly over meat so tender and moist that you’ll forget you were full from your five previous fried chicken stops just a minute ago. We did. If heat is your thing, opt for the spicy lacquered chicken wings. Soju and Hite or OB Lager are required. Just when you thought you couldn’t stomach another bite, the cast iron-crisped pajeon — yes, the leek pancakes Jonathan suggests you order — arrives at your table on the house. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself at OB Bear till closing. —Camellia Tse

Location: 3002 West Seventh Street, Los Angeles, CA 90005 | (213) 480-4910

Total distance: 69.9 miles
Total driving time: 2 hours, depending on LA traffic

Find more of Jonathan Gold’s restaurant recommendations here.

Header image by LWYang.