Even among Korean fast food dishes, a division in opinion is certainly common; some may find ddeokbokki too spicy, samgyeobsal too greasy, jjajangmyeon too salty, etc. But a near universal favorite in that late night indulgence category is Korean fried chicken which I've known even vegetarians to say they miss.
And it's not just the Koreans who are madly in love with their take on the chicken as branches and outlets of Korean fried chicken restaurants are found just about anywhere these days from the States to Europe to Southeast Asia. Among Koreans, one's favorite chicken chain elicits some heated debate but for fanatics there are always a few elite chicken restaurants (and usually non-commercial chain restaurants) that are considered among the best of the best fried chicken restaurants in Seoul.
Shinsadong's Hanjan Eh Chooeok, Banpo's Banpodong Chicken, Buamdong's Gye Yeol Sa (formerly Cheers Chicken), Cheongdamdong's Serona Hof... these are just some of the fried chicken restaurants around Seoul which enjoys legendary status among chicken manics and those chicken joints are joined as a peer by Mirak Chicken which I visited recently.
Each of those "elite" chicken restaurants have a signature chicken dish and for Mirak Chicken it's their garlic pan chicken (철판마늘치킨) in which an entire fried chicken is smothered with a sweet diced garlic mixture and arrives to your table on a sizzling hot pan. I had friends before who raved so much about the garlic chicken here that they told me they not only visited twice in one week before but waited in line for over 40 minutes each time.
While exploring the area with friends a few weeks ago, we just happened to pass by Mirak Chicken at an off time (around 4:30PM) and, seeing how there was no line, we decided to go for the chicken on a whim.
Mirak Chicken is a HOF, meaning it's one of those Korean beer/soju eats-and-drinks pub and the interior definitely reflects its HOF status. The dim lighting, wooden tables, and seats all give it a very old-fashioned HOF feel despite Mirak Chicken saying it renovated the interior in 2007 to give it a "newer and polished" feel. If this is the case, I wonder actually how the place looked before because the interior looks just like the smaller neighborhood chicken HOF joints that are ubiquitous in Korea.
Seating is limited to about 40 seats including an odd, long table in the center. The kitchen is open in the back so you can watch them cook and prep and the place thankfully has a pretty decent gender-split bathroom which is a rarity in most HOFs such as these.
The menu features most of the standards of a Korean HOF but its three main fried chicken varieties are the regular, glazed/seasoned, and the garlic which are priced at 15,000; 16,000; and 17,000 respectively. You can also get a half/half order of the regular and glazed for 15,000 but you can't choose the garlic as one of the half/half options. Boneless, popcorn chicken are also available in garlic and spicy flavor which are both 13,000 won while the popular fried garlic cloves topping is 2,000 won. The most popular choice though, and the signature of Mirak Chicken as I said, is undoubtedly the garlic chicken.
Other anjoo on the menu include standard HOF fare including spicy whelk and noodles (골뱅이소면 for 15,000), sausage assortment (13,000), odeng soup (13,000), spicy chicken feet (10,000), assorted fried potato (10,000), and dried fish and squids (10,000 for each order).
As a HOF bar, most will come here to at least get a drink or two and you can get the draft beers in 500cc, 2000cc, and 3000cc sizes for 3,000; 12,000; and 16,000 respectively. bottled Cass and Hite beers are 4,000, while soju is 3,000.
Non-Korean bottled beers available include Heineken, Hoegaarden, and Guinness.
Order for the famed garlic chicken and a few 500ccs were made.
There's the common free unlimited popcorn with your beer orders but draft beers were unfortunately very bland. As Korean beers, we didn't have high expectations to begin with but the draft beer here tasted even more watered down. I'd say stick with the bottled beers here and skip the draft.
With the chicken comes your standard pickled cube radishes, a spicy dipping sauce, salt and pepper dipping mixture, and a cabbage slaw/salad with a kiwi/mayonnaise dressing. Nothing out of the ordinary yet.
And then out came the garlic chicken, sputtering and sizzling on the fiery hot metal pan. Even when we first entered the restaurant the smell of garlic was heavy in the air and one look at the garlic chicken and you could see why. Each fried chicken piece was absolutely smothered in the garlic glaze with all the diced garlic bits clearly evident. Thankfully, the garlic sauce was only atop the chicken and not on the smoking hot pan otherwise the burnt garlic smell and taste would have been a tizzy.
Cutting into the chicken the chicken was perfectly cooked inside with the succulent flesh locking in the moisture. Pulling apart the chicken meat inside, wisps of hot steam would release from the meat and then mix with the lingering scent of sweet garlic.
The chicken was cooked expertly with a nice crispy exterior and wonderfully moist chicken meat inside. The frying oil was definitely not old or rancid (often a problem in many old HOFs) and I'm sure I'd be coming by regularly for the fried chicken if I lived nearby. But as hyped as the special garlic seasoning was, I wasn't won over.
On first taste, the minced garlic on top tastes quite sweet as the glaze is copious amounts of minced garlic mixed with some syrupy, sweet mixture (my guess is oligodang or oligosaccharide). A few seconds later, the pungent garlic flavors hits your taste buds but the garlic, because of their different degree of cooking, comes in a rather erratic mix of flavors; some of the garlic is sweet because it's cooked just right, some tastes spicy because it's still a little raw, and other parts taste a bit bitter because it's been overcooked. Instead of the minced garlic enhancing or adding to the fried chicken, it muddles it. I'm a huge fan of garlic but in this dish I was hoping to come upon an epiphany of how garlic and chicken could come together beautifully but I was left disappointed and feeling the garlic was a distraction from the fried chicken if anything.
Rather than basting it on the fried chicken, I think providing the sauce on the side to allow the occasional dip of chicken meat in the sauce would lead to a better intermarriage of the two, not to mention a more uniform tasting garlic sauce.
Which... isn't to say we didn't finish it. I would have been enormously disappointed if the chicken itself disappointed as much as the garlic glaze but Mirak Chicken definitely has its fried chicken basics down to the dot- nice and crispy outside and moist, succulent flesh inside.
Note how the fallen garlic bits on the hot pan have started to blacked from the heat though. Burnt garlic is never any good in any dish.
Mirak Chicken's garlic chicken ended up with mixed reviews from all of us on our visit. Despite all the raves I heard about the garlic chicken, I just wasn't convinced shelling out 17,000 for overly sweet and bitter garlic sauce on chicken was worth it... even if the fried chicken itself was flawless. If the chicken wasn't so well executed I would have doubts about ever coming back to this place, but it was, which is why I'm at least open to returning to try out their regular chicken next time.
2.5 out of 4 Stars
Despite all the hoopla about it, the garlic sauce is too staggered in flavor and distracts from the fried chicken... even if the fried chicken itself is superb. The setting is dingy and casual and just like an old-school HOF should be, though prices are just a few thousand wonnies higher than average. But most importantly, the draft beer is just too flat and watered down to make its mark as a proper HOF and certainly not worth waiting in line for...
서울 종로구 체부동 39-2
39-2, Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
Walk straight up from exit 2 of Gyeongbokgung Station for about 150 meters and you'll see Mirak Chicken on your left, next to a donkatsu store.
Draft Korean beer and bottled soju available
Mirak Chicken only opens from 2PM onwards everyday- though it does stay open until 3AM.
Delivery is unavailable but takeout orders can be made.