Time is FLYING. Even when trying to relax and enjoy vacation, we still feel busy: kid’s sports practices and camps, making dinner for the family, finding time to get all of our work done! Time can feel like it is slipping right from our grasp. I just want one minute to slow down, take life in, enjoy a meal. This is why you have to get to Crunchik’n at 1348 Boardwalk. Amidst the fast-paced Boardwalk, bikes and surreys whizzing by, and high-pitched roller coaster screams, sits a small gem – Crunchik’n… The crispy fried chicken and Asian fusion of your dreams, and a new Korean family, the Choi’s, you never knew you needed.
One year ago John and Jen Choi, a father-daughter duo, opened Crunchik’n. Their trajectory has not at all been ordinary. For years, John was a professor in Korea for half of the year and a family man and hard worker in America the other half. Jen graduated with a public health degree and was a public health researcher.
But John loved to cook.
“He was always cooking,” Jen explained as her mom, Kim, jumped in. “In Korea, he cooked for everyone. They always said, ‘you have to open your own place!’”
You see, at Crunchik’n, it’s a family affair like most Ocean City businesses. After the initial shock of John and his daughter Jen jumping ship to start a new career, Kim is all hands on deck in the kitchen. She even offers up her age-old kimchi recipe, a traditional Korean staple made of fermented vegetables like radish and cabbage. Kimchi is deeply personal and unique to each Korean family, so I did not get the insider-info. But I will tell you this, it takes 16 hours just to prep the vegetables for Kim’s kimchi. The Choi kimchi secret is locked up and hidden, but go order their kimchi cheese fries, and you will at least get to taste it.
The bulgogi cheesesteak caught my eye on the menu before I even arrived. Going into Crunchik’n, I had no idea what any Korean foods were: bulgogi, japchae, the nuance of Korean fried chicken. But Crunchik’n has explanations of each Korean term posted on their store front, so you feel comfortable ordering.
“Korean food is not as widely known in the United States. We want our customers to really enjoy Korean cuisine. We want to expose more people to Korean food,” Jen said. “I’m Korean-American. That’s what we make here. It’s Korean food, but tied into American classics.”
This is exactly how I would describe a bulgogi cheesesteak: a base of classic American food, filled with the punch of Korean flavor. Pronounced exactly as spelled, bul-go-ghee is a Korean specialty. It’s Korean barbecue. The meat is sliced very thin and marinated for 24 hours. As Jen gave me some background, John started cooking. One difference between the beloved Philly cheesesteak is that this bulgogi cheesesteak is packed with veggies. To start, John puts a heaping pile of shredded carrots and onion on the grill along with the bulgogi.
“Actually, our sauce for the bulgogi takes six months to make. One of the important things about real Korean food is that it takes a long time to make because a lot of the sauces need to sit and marinate or ferment. Some of our soy sauces that are in the sauces sit for six months to a year,” Jen told me while watching her dad with a smile.
Their bulgogi marinade is made with soy, ginger, and lots of Korean seasonings and sauces created specifically by the Chois. To ensure flavor perfection, Jen and John go to Korea throughout the year to consult with their team about what tastes the absolute best.
Next, John scooped out a classic Philly roll and layered one side with a regular, American cheese sauce. Next is a hefty portion of bulgogi and sauteed vegetables. Blanketing the bulgogi is a mixture of shredded provolone and mozzarella cheese. John tops all of this with a fresh, Korean salsa of chopped Korean radish, tomatoes and a hint of spice. A sprinkling of chopped cilantro finishes the cheesesteak dish. The roll is soft yet crispy on the outside. The provolone pulls out of the roll and stretches like taffy with each cheesy bite. I am blown away by the simple changes that turn the classic cheesesteak into Korean-American fusion.
Now about the restaurant’s namesake: the chicken. The concept of fried chicken has swept the Korean nation. Jen and Kim set a plate for me to try, and assemble the show-stopper: the “Beach Pop.” The Beach
Pop is your drink of choice with a bowl for a lid, filled with Crunchik’n’s best chicken and fries. It seems unbelievable, but it’s the perfect Boardwalk food – an entire meal in one cup.
“Korean chicken is traditionally twice-fried. Before that, we cut all of the chicken ourselves because it is really important to us to have fresh chicken. The chicken marinades for 24 hours. It is barely covered in batter and fried twice,” Jen explained.
I am amazed at the meticulous planning for each step, but it is entirely worth it. Each bite is incredibly flavorful and addicting. I had a mouth full of the honey soy boneless chicken and with no desire to stop eating in sight, Jen continued.
“Sometimes we are up late into the night cutting chicken for the next day. I start to think I hate chicken and never want to see it again. And then… I find myself still craving it!”
The honey soy chicken (served bone-in or boneless) is so ridiculously flavorful, salty, sweet and crispy, I couldn’t stop eating as we talked. But I think that’s exactly what the Chois wanted. As Jen and my conversation continued, John created more and more items for me to try. These moments perfectly encapsulate the environment the Chois created in their kitchen and restaurant. They are excited to teach about Korean cuisine and even more excited to share it with their customers. Ordering at Crunchik’n starts to become a personal experience. Jen knows the names of all of her regulars, often asking how their vacation is going or sharing new specials with them while getting their food ready. You will begin to look forward to more than just the menu. Crunchik’n will be your moment to pause.
Time is flying, and summer seems to be slipping through our fingers. But if you need just a moment, to stop and take in the sounds of Ocean City, to slow down for a second, go get some chicken from John and Jen Choi at Crunchik’n. Listen to the waves in the background, grab dinner for your family, eat some chicken. To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you might miss it” (and you might miss some pretty dang good chicken!)