Backoo’s Korean Chicken To Go on the Bedford Highway is a classic hole-in-the-wall. The tiny space is spartan, offering only a handful of stools alongside wall-mounted counters. In the corner of the room a flat screen TV mounted near the ceiling plays KBS World, a Korean 24-hour news channel. The sound of deep-frying chicken is so loud in the small room that it makes conversation difficult.
This location opened in June, and Backoo’s first outpost, on Birmingham Street in downtown Halifax, opened in January. It’s been a wild ride for JoungMin Kim and Sang Ho Back who met by chance less than three years ago.
“We met at the wholesale store,” he says. “Just bumped into each other and said hi. I can see that guy is Korean. That’s how we became friends.” Kim says Halifax doesn’t have a large Korean population so the two bonded quickly over their shared culture.
“I was talking to him about how there was no Korean chicken here,” Kim says. “I used to live in Vancouver. I know people not just from Korea, but lots of Canadians who like it because it goes well with beer.” Back had been thinking about opening a restaurant since he moved to Halifax a few years before.
In December 2015, the pair, along with a third friend, Jae Gwon Koo, formed a company. A month later, Backoo’s opened on Birmingham Street. The menu was small, just three types of chicken and a handful of daily specials, such as bibimbap (a popular vegetable and meat steamed rice dish topped with a sunny-side up egg).
Like the Bedford location, the Halifax stop is small and simple; a couple of stools, a counter for ordering, and a mounted TV. (The Halifax location is more likely to play Korean music videos than news.)
Paul Hammond, a visual artist who works with youth at the Halifax Central Library, says he eats there at least three times a week. “The bibimbap is the jewel,” he says. “It’s really tasty, filling. The flavour is awesome and it’s a really good amount for food for $5. It’s one of the best deals downtown for sure.”
“It picked up pretty fast, the first one,” says Kim. “Because Korean-style fried chicken is already known to people. Lots of people have been to Korea, and there are lots of students who have traveled or they’ve seen it on TV.”
Word of mouth is a big factor in Backoo’s success. Paramedic Benjamin Downey tried it on the recommendation of a friend who taught in Korea. “He said it was the most authentic food he’s tried in Halifax. I don’t know about that, but it’s great.” He then recommended it to his friend Jesse Hiltz. “It’s the best fried chicken of any kind in the city. It’s just so damn good,” says Hiltz.
Backoo’s popularity grew fast. It was an easy stop to grab a chicken combo or bibimbap for lunch, but before long they faced their first challenge.
“People said our food was good, but too pricy,” says Kim. The pair saw only two ways to lower the cost: either switch from fresh chicken to frozen, or buy larger quantities of fresh chicken to secure a discount. To use all of the fresh chicken the restaurant brought in, they’d need a second customer base.
They decided to open a second location on the Bedford Highway. “It was risky because we never knew if it was going to work or not,” Kim says. “It was a total bet.”
The Bedford location is a short walk to Mount Saint Vincent University, so it seemed the perfect spot to duplicate Backoo’s success at attracting students. Ordering additional chicken allowed the eatery to decrease its prices by about 20 per cent.
Kim was in for a second surprise when the shop’s Bedford clientele turned out to be largely families. Customers kept ordering steamed rice with whole chickens, which wasn’t on the menu. “Korean people don’t do that,” he says. Steamed rice joined the menu, and Kim and Back created a host of family-size combos to serve the locals.
The menu is frankly confusing. Appetizers include dumplings, gimmari, and japchae (sweet potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables and meat). That’s easy. But the chicken section gets confusing.
The fried-chicken options are dakgangjung (boneless chicken in sweet and spicy sauce available in three sizes) or a whole chicken. For someone dining alone this could be a turn off, but read on. Near the bottom of the Bedford menu Backoo’s offers chicken combos, which include the fried chicken of your choice, plus rice, japchae, and coleslaw for $8.50.
I went home to try Backoo’s for myself. “It’s meant to be enjoyed with a light beer,” Kim told me, so I picked up some Propeller IPA. I ordered a mixed box of soya and garlic chicken and the sweet and spicy chicken, plus sides of deep-fried dumplings and gimmari.
The chicken is the star of the meal. They divide whole chickens into small pieces, slightly larger than chicken wings. They dust each piece in what Kim calls “the powder”: a secret blend of nine herbs and bean flour, before being lightly deep fried. Because the chicken is fresh, not frozen, deep frying seals the juices inside, creating a crunchy coating around tender chicken.
After frying it, they toss the chicken in one of two sauces (soya and garlic or sweet and spicy) or leave it plain to let the secret herb blend stand on its own.
The soya and garlic sauce has a sticky, honey-like texture, but is sweet without being cloying. The garlic is nicely balanced—tasty, and goes well with the IPA. But the sweet and spicy is my favourite.
“Sweetness and spiciness, when you eat them together it’s very addictive,” says Kim. “That’s why Korean people go back and back to the taste of it, because it gets you hooked.”
Backoo’s sweet and spicy sauce is a blend of Korean gochijang, a paste of hot chili, fermented soybeans, and salt. The raw paste has a sharp heat, but once it’s warmed the flavours become smoky. The heat is still there, but it’s low, slow, and lingering.
Eat some of one type of chicken, Kim suggests, then sip beer to clear the taste before trying the other. The beer is a palate cleanser and makes every sauce switch taste like the first bite.
The dumplings are small, but offer a satisfying crunch. The juicy filling tastes like pork, but is actually soya protein. The dumplings work well on their own without dipping sauce. Less familiar to Haligonians might be deep-fried gimmari. This popular street snack features Korean sweet potato noodles wrapped in seaweed and then deep fried. The result is crunchy and salty on the outside with a slight sweetness from the hot noodles inside.
You can easily feed three or four people with an order of chicken and two sides, or two with leftovers to pack for lunch.
Kim is proud of what he and his partners have built over the last 10 months, and he’s already dreaming about the future.
“In Korea you go out, you go to one place for the night to have food and drinks,” says Kim. “Heavy food in the first round, less heavy food in the second round. We go for third, fourth, five rounds of drinking, you’re still eating but it’s different kinds of food. As you get fuller you want to eat lighter food.”
He thinks the Korean-style chicken and beer bar concept popular in South Korea will translate well to Halifax, a city that clearly loves its beer given the proliferation of breweries in the city over the last two years.
“That’s the culture that we have in Korea. Young people work hard, they go out for good food and drinks before they go home,” Kim says. “I want to bring that culture here so other people can enjoy it.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Backoo’s dumplings were incorrectly described. They do not contain meat.