Pioneer Chicken (Bab Han Kki, One Bite)
Koreatown (Los Angeles), California
Those who were living in Southern California in the 1970s may recall a time when Pioneer Pete was circling the wagons and flipping the bird at The Colonel; Pioneer Take Out (more commonly known as Pioneer Chicken) was once a formidable opponent, having hatched from the Pioneer Market in Echo Park back in the early 1960s. The company couldn’t compete with the corporate conglomerate yardbird shacks, and by 1987 founder H. R. Kaufman had manned his last Frialator. The hatchet fell for the last time in 1993 when AFC Enterprises (parent company to Popeye’s) purchased what remained and converted most of the restaurants to Popeye’s.
Today, there are three locations remaining (with full restaurants on South Soto Street and in Bell Gardens); a restaurant on a busy wedge along West Olympic Boulevard closed in 2014 and the building went up for sale (hopefully for some enterprising businessman to reopen as a Pioneer Chicken, rising from the ashes like a phoenix chicken). In the meantime, the assets of the Olympic location reappeared in the Koreatown Plaza Food Court in February of 2015. Loyalists and nostalgia buffs can rekindle that gas flame at the two restaurant locations, but for the food adventurer who wants a taste of the past in an out-of-the-ordinary setting, your best bang for the buck is the Koreatown Plaza location.
Because of the requirement that they abide by the regulations of the food court, finding Pioneer Chicken proves the adage that life is about the journey, not the destination. With the abundance of neon signage, you won’t find a back-lit throwback cartoon Pioneer Pete sign – the food kiosks carry Korean names, and the chicken is to be found at Bab Han Kki, One Bite. The vinyl banner below the light up Korean food signs provides the minimalist fried chicken menu; there are essentially three dishes from the once-popular chain.
For the complete mash-up experience, go with the 3-piece meal that comes with 3 sides for $8.99. Forget about your paper cartons or cardboard buckets – when your paging device signals that your meal is ready, it comes served to you on a glass dish. The chicken is perched on a half-moon wire rack to prevent the steam from ruining the magical crispy golden shell that lovingly envelops the meat. The first bite exposes the hot, moist and tender flesh, with the crunchy contrast of the intact coating hinting at a roll in some Corn Flakes. The sides are adequate, with a heavy-handed application of mayonnaise on the potato salad and coleslaw, but the French fries are perfect – golden brown and firm on the outside, hot and pillowy on the inside.
If you like throwing all caution to the wind you can accentuate your meal with Korean sides or main dishes, or just sit back, close your eyes, and go back to the days of the tumbling tumbleweeds and declare yourself a winner. Winner. Chicken dinner.