From ayam goreng to Hot Star and KFC: a field guide to fried chicken in Sydney

Flying Chook owners Kenny Lee (left) and Jay Ahn in their Korean fried chicken restaurant in Rhodes.
Flying Chook owners Kenny Lee (left) and Jay Ahn in their Korean fried chicken restaurant in Rhodes.  Photo: James Brickwood

They say that those who burn twice as bright burn half as long, but in the case of fried chicken, a "trend" locally since the first Kentucky Fried opened in Guildford in 1968, this is a long, slow burn with many flavours and textures.

In the midst of a pandemic, however, with delivery a necessity, a dish with myriad variations is finding a wider audience as fried chicken shops reveal themselves as one of the more resilient restaurant models in the face of COVID

How to draw a blanket around a genre with so many categories, though? In Sydney alone, fried chicken extends far. Head to Ayam Goreng 99 in Kensington, and it comes three ways, with sweet Javanese-style and buttery mentega variations on the original. Visit Tan Viet in Cabramatta and the marylands are glass-skinned and crisp.

Butter's signature chicken sandwich, available from its stores in Surry Hills, Chatswood and Parramatta.
Butter's signature chicken sandwich, available from its stores in Surry Hills, Chatswood and Parramatta. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Widen the lens and you'll find the likes of India's chicken 65, Brazil's croquette-like coxinha, and Taiwanese chain Hot Star's mammoth fried breasts all within Australia, not to mention the karaage and the fiery laziji of Japan and Chongqing respectively.

But in Sydney, it's another KFC – Korean fried chicken – that jostles with American-style fried chook (which has its own variations) for top billing.

Julian Cincotta, threw himself into the latter (albeit with an occasional Japanese inflection) when he opened Butter in Surry Hills in 2015. A Parramatta store launched four years later and in January Cincotta opened a Butter outpost in Chatswood, very much in the knowledge that responding to lockdowns would be part of its DNA.

Australia's first Kentucky Fried Chicken store on Woodville Road, Guildford, during its opening week in 1968.
Australia's first Kentucky Fried Chicken store on Woodville Road, Guildford, during its opening week in 1968. Photo: Pat Purcell

"We recognised the importance of the delivery market and launched our own service where we don't get hit by crazy commission rates," he says. "Whenever there is a significant lockdown, it goes bananas."

Menu testing, says Cincotta, amounted to hours spent driving and riding around with wings and tenders in his backpack. Now, the Butter team packs their chicken piping hot whereas in store they let it rest before serving. "When it's delivered it's still moist," he says. "And the next day it's still damn tasty."

Despite the success of Nashville-style Belles Hot Chicken in locations including Forest Lodge and Barangaroo, the appetite for Korean fried chicken has perhaps eclipsed all others, with dozens of restaurants specialising in shatteringly crisp wings dotting the city.

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Kenny Lee is the latest to break into the format, opening Flying Chook in Rhodes in early July. Here, the chicken is soaked for 24 hours in a brine made with salt, garlic and other "secret ingredients", before being tossed in flour and potato starch and fried.

Lee brings wisdom from Haymarket restaurant Tempura Kuon, in which he's a partner, to the fold, focusing on using clean oil at the right temperature to give that signature crunch.

"We double fry, so we normally fry first, then let it sit, then fry again," he says. "Keeping good-quality oil and changing it regularly is the key to getting that nice texture, and also the taste of chicken instead of oil."

Nashville-style fried chicken and waffles: a recurring weekend available at Belles Hot Chicken.
Nashville-style fried chicken and waffles: a recurring weekend available at Belles Hot Chicken. Photo: Lewis McQueen

The double-fry also means sauces – ranging from the more classic soy-garlic all the way to rosé, made with gochugaru chilli and cream – don't turn the coating soggy. Paired with a Korean beer (Lee offers Cass and Hite) it's a fine time, whether out with a group or at home. "Beer and chicken is a great match," says Lee.

Moreso, fried chicken crosses the divide for something to share with friends at a restaurant, or to indulge in on the couch, making it perfect pandemic fare. "For Korean culture, chicken is one of the key things that we have all the time at home, so take out is quite usual," he says.

As for whether the hype will pass? Cincotta thinks the future is bright. "I always say, pizza is never going to die … fried chicken is never going to die. It's always going to be on trend."

Karaage chicken and chilli mayo at Osaka Trading Co. in Forest Lodge.
Karaage chicken and chilli mayo at Osaka Trading Co. in Forest Lodge. Photo: Christopher Pearce

A Fried Chicken Field Guide

Chicken crisped in oil comes in many guises. Here are some of the more common varieties to found in Sydney.

Ayam goreng

Kensington's Ayam Goreng 99 serves three of many Indonesian variations, each made all the more addictive with the belachan-based house chilli sauce.

A whopping Taiwanese fried chicken cutlet from Hot Star in the Sydney CBD.
A whopping Taiwanese fried chicken cutlet from Hot Star in the Sydney CBD. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Buffalo

Buffalo wings, cut at the joint and covered in buttery hot sauce after frying, are ideal bar food, best cooled with celery and blue-cheese sauce.

Indian

There's Kerala-style for starters, as well as Chinese-influenced lollipops and chicken 65. Each incorporates chilli and aromats in the marinade or sauce. Find all three at Manna Cuisines in Westmead.

Karaage

Japan's most widely known fried chicken contribution is a fixture at izakayas. Potato starch gives a light coating, while soy marinade brings depth.

Korean 

There's tong-dak, but in Sydney "chik-kin" reigns. Made with either wings or boneless portions twice-fried for crunch, then (often) coated in copious amounts of sauce.

Laziji

This Chongqing specialty comes as nubs fried on the bone hidden among a pile of dried chillies and Sichuan pepper. Hot, numbing, delicious. Try it at China Chilli in Chatswood.

Nashville hot chicken

An spice-encrusted style with punishing heat levels first popularised at Prince's in the Tennessee capital in the 1930s. Belles Hot Chicken is the most well-known local purveyor.

Schnitzel

Breaded pounded breast fried golden. Find it almost everywhere, with flavours twigged to suit local palates. The schnitzel scaloppini burger at Chicko's takeaway in Wollongong is something of a regional specialty.

Southern

A dish with roots in the American South, refined by slave cooks and Black women entrepreneurs. Birds are most often jointed, brined in buttermilk, then coated and fried.

Taiwanese

If you haven't tried to manhandle an enormous sheet of fried chicken breast from a paper bag at one of Sydney's 10 Hot Star outposts, have you really lived?