Koreatown is no stranger to fried chicken; it seems like on every corner, in every strip mall, there’s a restaurant that has one of the crispiest and juiciest versions of the poultry dish. On the corner of Western and 4th, Gol Tong Chicken prevails. At first, the shop — flanked on each side by a Korean video store and a hair salon — seems rather unremarkable with a minimalist storefront and matte red letters on rectangular signage. But diners are in for a pleasant surprise when they taste the chicken and end up meeting Kil Chae Jeong, the shop’s sole owner and only employee.
From greeting customers to preparing the chicken and packaging orders, Jeong is responsible for it all, attending to these duties with a smile hidden under his mask and his mustache. Someone just passing through and hearing his emphatic voice booming through the small restaurant might see him as one of the most amiable fried chicken purveyors they’ve ever met. Stick around long enough, though, and you’ll realize the local community knows him by another name: Director Gol Tong, or Gol Tong Gamdok in Korean.
Before opening his Koreatown fried chicken shop, Director Gol Tong was doing something wildly different. After making a fortune opening karaoke lounges in LA in the early 1990s, he took his earnings to produce and direct three feature films in South Korea. During this time, the Korean film industry was undergoing the New Wave, led by the boom of international cult classics and ultimately culminating with Bong Joon Ho and Parasite winning at the Oscars this year. Entering the shop, visitors of Gol Tong Chicken will notice a row of movie posters taped on the walls of the restaurant; look a little closer at the credits and you’ll realize these posters showcase films that Director Gol Tong himself directed.
“I really knew nothing about making movies, but I wanted to impact how people saw the world. I had this lofty goal to teach the public something about life and humanity through my movies,” he explains. He was given the name “Director Gol Tong” by his film crew for being notoriously finicky. Although “gol tong” is the Korean term for stubborn and bears a negative connotation, he carries his name and gol tong spirit with pride.
Ultimately, Jeong’s film career didn’t quite take off. His first two films failed miserably, he admits, while his third and most well-known movie, a trippy erotic horror film called Hera Purple about a woman that becomes possessed by a spirit to commit a series of bizarre murders, had modest success. It eventually sold to a couple distributors in Japan, although the result was far from what Jeong had hoped for. Dark times followed. “I remember being at the Han River and contemplating suicide. I had lost everything,” he recalls. But he didn’t sulk for long.
“I started making fried chicken because I saw a program on TV that was explaining how to make it. It looked easy, so I thought I would give it a try,” he says. “I made many versions and eventually found one that I thought people would really enjoy.” Just as Director Gol Tong aimed to inspire the masses with his movies, Jeong hoped to do the same with his chicken.
With the modest funds he made from Hera Purple, he partnered with a couple members of his extended family to open a fried chicken restaurant in Korea — one that grew immensely popular and expanded to numerous locations. Financially, Jeong had more than enough, but he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of creative control he had over the food and the business. In 2017, he embarked on a completely new chapter, moving back to LA to open up yet another fried chicken shop, and this time, he would make it all his own.
Although his children reside in other LA neighborhoods, Jeong feels a sense of attachment to Koreatown and calls the community his home. This is a familiar sentiment: Like Jeong, many immigrants have come to Koreatown in search of a community to grow their own businesses in with a sense of comfort. Koreatown first became the primary hub for Korean immigrants during the 1970s and 1980s, which ushered in waves of new businesses. Today, it’s still very much a commercially driven area as many Koreans have moved to surrounding suburbs due to rising home prices. With many small business owners struggling to stay viable amid a pandemic and compete with larger chains and corporate entities, Koreatown continues to face tensions when it comes to cultural and historic preservation.
“For a long time, Koreatown took care of its people, its working class families and immigrants. I always appreciated how it was community-focused but also a bit scrappy,” says Lisa Kwon, a writer for LA Taco and a Koreatown native. “Even today, it’s a great place to explore and stumble upon small shops or restaurants. In order for Koreatown to thrive, the community has to continue to interact with and support small businesses.”
Korean fried chicken shops like Gol Tong Chicken have become an integral part of this Koreatown landscape as they paved the way for a food trend that is widely appreciated throughout LA and beyond. The first shops began opening in the early 2000s with chains like Kyochon and Bonchon, and eventually expanded to more independent restaurants. For a long time, fried chicken was popular in Korean bars like OB Bear, particularly due to its notable pairing with beer — known as “chimaek,” which is portmanteau of chicken and maekju, the Korean word for beer. However, the concept of Korean fried chicken as takeout and fast food arose because of numerous franchises like BBQ Chicken. The simplicity of the chicken lent itself to experimentation and endless possibilities of iterations, eventually leading to a surge in the Korean fried chicken trend and continued expansion of chain locations across the nation.
Despite the ubiquity of fried chicken in Koreatown, Jeong’s version has its own flair, which has helped him stay afloat, even with just takeout and delivery orders. His menu has just three main items: soy garlic chicken, chili chicken, and his classic crunchy fried chicken, all made from boneless thigh meat. All three are included in the restaurant’s most popular “Director’s Cut” order.
From there, unexpected ingredients like pineapples, avocados, peaches, cheese, and peppers delicately top the tender pieces of meat. This might seem like an unlikely combination of ingredients, especially since Korean fried chicken typically comes only with a small side of pickled daikon, but Jeong’s extra additions work well: Once plated, it’s a rainbow amalgam of color and an explosion of sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors. And just as his name suggests, the Director is incredibly picky about how each piece is prepared and presented, with just the right amount of cheese, sesame seeds, and sauce oozing from the chicken. Even when it comes to cooking up fast food, Jeong has his own creative spin and embodies his quirky directorial sensibility.
This unwavering meticulousness is why Jeong continues to operate alone, seven days a week. “I just can’t bear to think about turning people away,” he explains.
His work is indeed paying off. Last year, the restaurant expanded, moving from a nondescript basement to a more polished strip mall location. Like the film career he built years ago, Jeong wants to embody self-reliance in this chicken restaurant, even in his personal life. Despite growing business, Jeong claims to sleep in his car for only two or three hours a night. It’s not so much that he can’t afford a permanent residence, but more about the lifestyle he wants to live. He admits, “My kids keep telling me to get an apartment, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and I can’t imagine doing life any differently.”
Although they may not agree with his minimalist lifestyle, Jeong’s family is incredibly proud of what he has built. “I see Director Gol Tong as the epitome of the first-generation Korean immigrant,” says Steve Byun, Jeong’s son-in-law. “His perseverance has helped him chase his dreams. I mean, how many chicken joints do you know that are run solely by a film director?”
Reconciling Jeong’s past life with his present one, it’s hard not to wonder: What in the world do directing films and frying chicken have in common? On the surface, nothing. But both are skills he picked up on a whim. Both illustrate his fearlessness in taking on unfamiliar ventures and his desire to move people through his creations, Although more than half of his current business consists of repeat customers, Jeong has retained his resilient spirit through challenges of the pandemic and remains steadfast in his operations as a one-man show. Byun says that’s what the community loves most about him.
What does this 67-year-old envision for the future? Not retirement. On the contrary, when he first immigrated, he initially felt like he had no choice but to open in Koreatown because he didn’t know English. Now he dreams about launching his own chain of Gol Tong Chicken shops in the future and whipping up a Korean fried chicken sandwich. Maybe one day he’ll even make a movie about his fried chicken ventures.
Gol Tong Chicken is currently accepting takeout orders over the phone and is available for delivery on Postmates and Grubhub. 361 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 716-6116