If you’re a fan of KFC wings — the kind lashed with Korean hot sauce rather than the Southern-style from a certain fast food chain — you may think of them as just a form of basic sustenance. You spend your evenings cooling the burn of lip-scalding wings with frosty mugs of Hite, while bobbing your head to blaring K-pop in crowded dining rooms. By the third round of beer, you should be ready to sing Bang Bang Bang by Bigbang at post-dinner karaoke.
When you’re craving this experience in L.A., you head to the general vicinity of Koreatown. You might not think to go to Arcadia, the small suburb just east of Pasadena in the San Gabriel Valley, known for Santa Anita Park, the 82-year-old race track, and the Westfield Santa Anita mall.
Aldo and Nami Nakaganeku are trying to change that. The married couple opened Hot n Sweet chicken, a restaurant on a sleepy stretch of Huntington Drive that includes a driving school, a healcare supply store and a funeral home, in 2013.
“There are really no Korean fried chicken places here like in Koreatown,” says Aldo. He is sitting next to his wife at a table in his restaurant. Kara’s Mamma Mia K-pop music video plays on a T.V. behind him. “We wanted to bring the K-town experience to this part of town,” Aldo says. “One day, we’d like to expand and bring the experience all along the 210 freeway.”
Nami, born in South Korea, and Aldo, who is Japanese but was born in Argentina (he once worked as a cook and sushi chef at a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska), decided to open the type of restaurant you’d find somewhere in between Wilshire Boulevard and Sixth Street in Los Angeles. Or in Seoul.
“In Korea, people eat wings like a snack, and most people eat them with beer,” says Aldo. “Thousands of people offer wings. It’s like Starbuck’s here.”
They’ve outfitted the restaurant with everything you’d crave from an outing in Koreatown, minus the drunk karaoke. There’s Hite on tap, soju, Bigbang and Girl’s Generation music videos on the TVs, and — most importantly — there’s KFC .
Most of Nami’s experience in the kitchen came from decades of cooking for her family in South Korea and in the U.S. She and her husband developed the restaurant’s wing recipe after eating fried chicken in Korea, Singapore, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and, of all places, Canada (every place they traveled, they’d be sure to try the fried chicken). Then they spent five years experimenting and perfecting the wings they now serve at the restaurant.
Nami’s wings are not the thick-coated, ultra crisp, completely sauce-smothered wings you’ll find at OB Bear, a Koreatown site of pilgramage for those who love wings. They’re also not the wings you’ll find at Kyochon, which taste a bit like they’ve been coated in breakfast rice cereal. Rather, the wings at Hot n Sweet fall somewhere in between. The coating is crisp and golden, light in texture, and when you take a bite, it shatters, then melts on your tongue. That crisp, airy quality is similar to what you’d get if you dipped a wing in tempura batter — much lighter than the coating on the double-fried KFC you can find all over Koreatown. This distinct texture is achieved through Nami’s recipe — she uses a mix of cornstarch and flour in the batter — and the way she fries the chicken.
It’s a recent evening in their restaurant, and Nami is wearing a fuschia turtleneck, pink arm warmers, a black apron and her hair tied neatly back with a black velvet bow. She stands over a large fryer in her kitchen, dropping battered chicken wings into the fryer. The oil is light in color, due to her switching it out almost every day after service.
She uses a gloved hand to drop each wing, one by one, into the fryer. (Aldo estimates that Nami makes and coats about 1,200 wings a week.) On contact, the oil seethes around the chicken. Wielding a large slotted utensil, she pushes the chicken back and forth, continuously moving it around the bubbling pool. After about five minutes, she takes what looks like a giant knitting needle and punctures each piece, once or twice in the oil. “This so chicken is done,” says Nami. She doesn’t use a timer. She moves the pieces around, lifts them out of the oil to check the color, then, about five minutes later, declares the wings cooked and ready for saucing.
Nami then coats the chicken in a bright, salty soy garlic sauce — it’s made with a heady mixture of 15 ingredients, including sake and garlic. The sauce is thinner than a glaze, with a hint of ginger and that distinct sweetness that comes from sake or mirin. (You can eat a dozen without much effort.) And if soy garlic sauce seems a little too tame for you, Nami also has four other sauces, labeled one to four in order of heat level. One is mild enough to keep a chile head satisfied without getting teary-eyed — four is hot enough to stun someone who’s had a few too many Hites into a state that faintly resembles sobriety. The couple shared a version of the soy-garlic chicken wing recipe, minus a few secret ingredients. For the full experience, you’ll have to drive to Arcadia.