A Korean, fast-casual chicken restaurant franchise known worldwide is coming to Orange County in January.
Bonchon — which specializes in Korean-style fried chicken, made with a special secret sauce, and savory Asian fusion dishes — is expected to officially welcome customers Jan. 18 to its Adams Avenue address in Costa Mesa, though a soft opening is planned for Jan. 12.
The original restaurant opened in Busan, South Korea, in 2002, and the franchise has grown to several hundred locations worldwide, including sites in Thailand, Bahrain, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The U.S. is home to more than 50 Bonchon locations — in California, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Texas, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Colorado and New York.
Its first in this country opened in 2006 in Fort Lee, N.J., not far from current U.S. headquarters in New York City.
"Bon Chon" translates to "my hometown" in Korean.
"In choosing Costa Mesa, it was a combination of different factors: great location, entrances and exits for easy pick-up and takeout, and being in an up-and-coming area with good businesses all around," said Ben Xiang, Bonchon restaurant's area developer for Southern California.
The idea of joining Orange County's diverse, bustling food scene started taking hold in 2015, when Xiang was looking for unique investment opportunities in a saturated food industry.
"I was looking at chicken with an Asian twist, and I didn't find very many options. Then I heard about Bonchon — which has the most brand recognition around the world," Xiang said. "I thought it was a big opportunity to open up here [in Southern California]."
Xiang signed a deal to open and run five locations across Orange County, with possible expansion into Los Angeles much later down the line.
After several months of architectural planning and obtaining permits, construction for the new restaurant — which is part of an old movie theater converted into several units — began in August.
Bonchon prides itself on freshness, quality and staff experience, and as a traditional sit-down restaurant, it allows for fast-casual dining, Xiang said, noting that his new site will have a 50-seat capacity, full-service bar and options for catering and takeout.
Rotating craft beers from local California breweries — including Costa Mesa's Barley Forge — will be on tap, along with imported beers from Korea and Japan, he said.
"Living in Orange County, there are so many food options here, especially Asian restaurants," said Xiang. "But with Korean fried chicken becoming a trend in the last two to three years, there's no franchise that focuses [just on] that, or not a lot of people know where to find it. This fills a gap in this area, especially because chicken goes well with beer."
Orange County is home to several Korean-style restaurants — including the mom-and-pop Hashigo Korean Kitchen in Costa Mesa and the many locations for Gen Korean BBQ and BCD Tofu House. KyoChon is arguably Bonchon's biggest competitor, but it is located in Los Angeles.
Stepping inside Bonchon's spacious new location, between Hidden House Coffee Roasters and The Kicking Crab on Adams Avenue, customers will be greeted by the customary Bonchon red, black and white modern color scheme. Large photographs of Southern California scenes line the walls, and several big-screen TVs hang by the spacious sports bar.
"Everything in our kitchen is top-notch, stainless steel equipment — all brand new, top-of-the-line fryers to make our chicken crispier, to Bonchon standard," Xiang said. "Every single flavor and ingredient I've tasted to make sure it's best and feels authentic."
The kitchen's fryers can cook up to 1,000 wings at a time in up to 20 minutes, Xiang noted.
(In 2012, while Food & Wine restaurant editor, Kate Krader rated Bonchon one of five key places for chicken wings.)
But among the surrounding Wing Stops, Buffalo Wild Wings and Wingnuts, what makes Bonchon stand out are its top-secret sauces, giving the food a unique, traditionally Korean flavor.
Customers have a simple choice between two sauces: soy garlic or spicy. Or they can do half and half.
"When I first heard of the concept, I thought, well I like a lot of sauces. I can't live with only two. But then I tried it at the restaurant and it was enough," said Xiang.
Adding to the authenticity: The sauces are shipped from South Korea.
But Xiang also credits the cooking method.
"What makes it Korean fried chicken is the way we fry it, so that it's extremely crispy on the outside, with a very thin layer of crispy crust, and is very juicy on the inside," he said. "We fry all our chicken … so that the sauce is perfectly coated on every piece."
The restaurant will also serve traditional Asian fusion foods, from Korean-style tacos and kimchi pancakes to seared salmon salad and traditional bibimbap (white rice mixed with assorted vegetables, egg and Korean red pepper paste).
With the slogan "Addicted Yet?," the goal is to get people regularly wanting Bonchon's flavors.
Xiang said he won't rest on his or the company's laurels.
"One of the things [new customers] can expect is that we're going to perfect everything to the best of our ability.… We're going to constantly refine ourselves and find the best customer experience possible," he said.