Chicken with Explosive Chili Pepper at Z&Y Restaurant, $10.95
The chicken at Z&Y isn't all about the presentation, but it certainly makes for an impressive platter. A massive pile of fiery red dried chilies is placed on your table, with chunks of golden-fried chicken peering out. It's up to you to dig, removing the juicy, thin-crusted pieces of dark meat with your chopsticks.
This would be fun with any kind of fried bird, but Z&Y's chicken is standout. The meat itself is salty, juicy, and flavorful; the crust (made of cornstarch) is thin, crisp, and delicate. And then there's that rich, spice-laced flavor, the slow-building heat. There's an intense dose of tangy vinegar, ginger, and Szechuan peppercorns, and, of course, the tingly numbing sensation that goes with them. You'll find that the heat doesn't stop you, though—this is chicken that's too good to leave unfinished.
Chicken Wings at SO, $6.50
I'm going to be blunt about this: skip the line at San Tung. Go to SO, its sister restaurant in SOMA. Not only is it (a) less packed and (b) cheaper, but their dry-fried chicken wings are better.
Specifically: they are slightly more battered than San Tung, and the dark meat juicier. Most important, though, is the sauce. Made with roasted red pepper, ginger, and garlic, the sauce has more pepper, and more heat, than its sweeter iteration at San Tung. Sure, San Tung is a great example of great Chinese-style chicken wings. Go with our blessing. But you'll find us at SO, where there's a little more heat and a lot less wait.
SO: 1010 Bryant Street, San Francisco CA 94103 (map) 415-552-7676
Spicy Chicken Wings at Toyose, $12.95
Toyose is the kind of place that doesn't even really need to have good food. Hidden in a refurbished garage buried in Outer Sunset fog, it's a Korean joint that more or less specializes in drinking food. But whether or not you're sauced, everything—from seafood pancakes to spicy kimchi soup—is damn delicious, and certain to warm your bones from the chill ocean air (whether you're there at 1 p.m. or 1 a.m.).
Their fried chicken wings are no exception. You get 10 pieces per order, a nice mixture of wings and drums, coated generously in a shatter-crisp batter flecked with chile flakes. The dark meat is moist, salty, and tender—this is burn-your-mouth-good chicken, with a slow-building heat from the spiced crust (and a refreshing change from many of the saucier wings we encountered). And while you certainly don't have to be drinking to enjoy this chicken, a cold glass of Hite does make for a nice pairing.
Toyose: 3814 Noriega Street, San Francisco CA 94122 (map) 415-731-0232
Toyose, Foggy Late-Night
KFC at Aria Korean Snack Bar, $6.99
If only all chicken "nuggets" could be as fantastic as the juicy, flavorful morsels from the Aria Korean Snack Bar, a pocket-sized shop nestled on Larkin Street (they've got a record player, too). A medium order of their KFC comes with 9 pieces of boneless, skinless dark and white meat chicken ($12.99 gets you a 16-piece large order), accompanied by Mama's homemade sweet-and-sour radishes.
The crunchy, spicy-sweet radishes are the stuff that pickle dreams are made of, but are just one of the bonuses of Aria. The chicken, while occasionally tendony in texture, is delicately flavored with turmeric, and coated in a crisp, non-greasy batter made from finely ground "Korean mixed flour" (according to the friendly gentleman behind the counter). Sauces are $1 each -- we preferred the sweet and spicy sauce over the garlic soy, but found both to be nice, if not totally necessary additions to the chicken. Oh, and it's worth noting that these are pretty delicious as cold leftovers, too (the boneless factor is key).
Aria Korean Snack Bar: 932 Larkin Street, San Francisco CA 94109 (map) 415-292-6914
Aria Crust, Close-Up
Fried Garlic Chicken at Cocobang, $13.95
When we talk about serious drunk Korean food, we talk about Cocobang. Positioned "off Union Square" or "really, in the Tenderloin," depending on whom you ask, the restaurant is open until 3 a.m., and a mere stumbling distance from some of the best dive bars in the city. We showed up somewhere around 1, or 2 a.m. maybe...it was declared "necessary for our tasting" that we make stops at "at least two, maybe three bars first."
So. The chicken. It's a half chicken broken down and fried, meaning some pieces are boneless, and some are not. You can get the straight-up garlic chicken, or have it doused in a sticky, tangy garlic sauce. I remember the heat—the steam of the fresh-fried chicken burning the roof of my mouth, the crusty exterior scalding my fingers (I was in no state to wait for things to cool). I remember the sauce, everywhere, coating my fingers—we got it on the side, and while I found it too sweet, I also found myself double dipping my chicken pieces. I remember a pretty amazing plate of greasy kimchi fried rice, studded with salty-sweet Chinese sausage. The best Korean fried chicken around? Nah—I'd take Aria or Toyose when sober any day. But late night, after a number of beers and a rendition of "Gangnam Style" at the High-Tide Lounge? Nothin' better.
Kara-age Chicken at Izakaya Yuzuki, $8
If this fried chicken walked into a bar, she'd be the classiest broad in the joint. The setting doesn't hurt—Izakaya Yuzuki is a minimalist, stunningly simple home for thoughtful and composed Japanese small plates, beer, and sake.
Their kara-age is no exception. Succulent, juicy morsels of white and dark meat are marinated in salt koji from Japan, and the salt-laced fermented grain lends the chicken a distinctive, subtly unique umami flavor. The chicken crust maintains a delicate, tempura-like texture; a squeeze of lemon brightens each bite and lends a freshness to each bite.
Karage! at Ken Ken Ramen, $4.50
Ken Ken Ramen's sassily punctuated Karage! is "made with love," and is something of the punk rock cousin to Yuzuki's more rarified iteration. Five hunks of salty, juicy meat are all about packing in the flavor, from the intensely textural crust to the "spicy original" dipping sauce (a blend of sriracha and Kewpie mayo).
Flavor-wise, it really is all about the dark meat pieces, which are noticeably salty and chicken-rich. The crust, made from cornstarch and tapioca flour, has some similarities to thick, craggy Southern-style exteriors, and adheres nicely to the meat after deep frying in canola oil.
Chicken Wings at Nombe, $9.50
Nombe is one of those spots that makes plenty of food waves in this city, largely thanks to being on the forefront of the ramen burger trend. But they do fried chicken two ways, too, and while it wasn't my all-time favorite, it deserves a spot in our round-up.
Their version of kara-age, listed as "JFC," was texturally uninteresting compared to Ken Ken and Yuzuki's versions. But their wings, while slightly undersalted and dry, managed to make a lasting impression thanks to the totally stellar sauce. The blend of honey, serrano pepper, cilantro, and fish sauce packed a serious punch of funky, spicy-sweet flavor. The exterior crust of the wings lent itself well to soaking up the flavor, making these an addictive accompaniment to beer.