“Where are we going?” my friend asked me as I drove.
“Place is called Krave,” I replied.
“Didn’t you already review that?”
“No, that was Crave with a C in Santa Ana,” I said. “This is Krave with a K. It’s behind the Souplantation in Irvine.”
Though he didn’t ask, I went on to explain that it’s also not to be confused with Krave Kobe Burger, which is in Newport. Or the Crave in Garden Grove, which serves boba milk tea.
“The Krave we’re going to calls itself a ‘contemporary Asian fusion’ restaurant, but it does a great fried chicken,” I continued. “I tried it last week.”
“Oh, okay,” he said, trying to hide his ambivalence.
When we sat down in the nearly empty dining room, he looked around and remarked how strangely plain the place was. I agreed. With the gray wall paint, a concrete floor, black chairs and bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, the restaurant could double as an interrogation room if you took out the flat-screen TVs and added a two-way mirror.
The chicken I ordered arrived quickly. But upon seeing the glassy sheen on the drumsticks and wing pieces, my friend was unconvinced.
“It looks greasy,” he said.
“No, that’s the sauce they brush on top,” I told him. “Try it!”
He picked up a drumstick gingerly, then bit into it. That was when his eyes got as wide as saucers. “Oh, wow!” he exclaimed.
“See! Isn’t it great?” I said triumphantly.
We spent the evening devouring the order while discussing how we’ve had many Korean-style fried chickens in the past—at BBQ Chicken, Love Letter, Crazy Chi-Mac in Buena Park—but none has been like this. The difference, we decided, must be the technique. The chicken skin wasn’t just fully rendered of its fat by the double-fry method, the hallmark of all Korean-style fried chickens; it was detached with an air gap in between meat and skin, forming a hollow, crunchy, candy shell you could rap with a spoon.
We couldn’t decide whether it was like Peking duck, a crème brûlée or a combination of the two. But we agreed everything about it was perfect—this was a new level of achievement in the art of Korean fried chicken. If Kyochon and BonChon brought on the culinary trend’s renaissance, this masterpiece was its Sistine Chapel.
But with all masterpieces, it took time. An order of chicken at Krave can take up to 20 minutes to prepare. And unlike at other Korean fried-chicken shops, the chicken here did not automatically come with the obligatory daikon radish pickles for free. Saucing choices came in garlic soy, black peppercorn, Chinese chile and spicy, but since the flavor difference between them was slight, we forgot what we asked for and instead focused on how ethereally crunchy and greaseless the crust was despite having only the tiniest hint of a batter.
If you want the fried chicken, there’s no option for white meat—only wings and drumsticks are offered. There was, however, the chicken katsu, a golden-brown, panko-crusted plank of flattened chicken breast sliced into strips zigzagged with a tangy sauce over rice. It was just as satisfyingly filling as the katsu at Aloha Hawaiian BBQ in Tustin, even if it didn’t come with a mac salad.
The Contemporary Asian Fusion part of Krave came from items inspired by Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck. Some of them are so similar as to border on mimicry. I ate a “Kogi” quesadilla fat with Korean bulgogi and gooey of Monterey Jack, dipping it into a thimble of gochujang as though it were salsa. Also fusion-y was a massive half-pound burger piled with a kimchi-flavored slaw, leaf lettuce and melted cheese under a shiny brioche bun. Its sweet and sesame-oil-seasoned patty tasted as though it were imported from a Korean barbecue.
The best time to eat the burger or the fried chicken, we realized, is during weekdays at lunchtime, when Krave offers them for $8.99 with fries—a substantial discount. The sale price also applies to a honest-to-goodness bibimbap served in an honest-to-goodness heated stone bowl that scorches the rice to crispy shards.
Also discounted at lunch is Krave’s second-best dish: the salmon avocado salad. It’s what would happen if you took the usual imitation crab filling of a California roll, combined it with Persian cucumbers and avocado, formed it in a ring mold, then placed a teriyaki-glazed grilled salmon on top with a shower of pea sprouts. Korean poke? Maybe, but the result is greater than the sum of its parts—the most original creation from a restaurant with the most unoriginal name.
Krave Asian Fusion Restaurant, 2819 Main St., Irvine, (949) 379-6075; cravekrave.wix.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$30, food only. Beer, wine and soju cocktails.