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“This is food that I would serve to my mother and to my children,” says WingWok founder and father of four James Park. He’s referring to the Korean fried chicken wings, banchan (side dishes), and kimchi-topped french fries spread out before us on a large table inside the commercial test kitchen in Englewood where he and his partners are explaining their nascent fast-casual restaurant concept. Park’s team in the endeavor, including proprietor Brian Gunning, development pro Zach Frisch, and chef Yong “Peter” Ho are also there, although Ho is on the line, tossing batches of wings in a smoking-hot wok with different sauces. It smells like chicken-fried heaven.
The WingWok team has been planning their new concept for a couple of years now, although the actual recipe development began just three months ago. Since then, it’s been all chicken, all of the time, as Ho and the final of the five WingWok partners, chef-entrepreneur and head of marketing Eric Haugen, an alum of the French Laundry in Napa Valley and the Zakarian Hospitality Group in New York City, have worked to refine WingWok’s menu—with Gunning, Frisch, and especially Park on hand for taste-test approvals. “Korean food is all about family and friends,” Park says. “This is my favorite food, and we want WingWok to make it sexy, and bring it to life, for everyone.”
If big, juicy, super-crispy chicken wings and finger-licking-good sauces play into your idea of sexy, then WingWok is that and more. The to-go and delivery-only restaurant, which will open its first store across from Arapahoe High School in Centennial in late spring, is a passion project for Park and his partners; Park is a 15-year veteran of the chain restaurant and retail industry, having led growth at brands like Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, Garbanzo, and 7-Eleven. “WingWok is my back nine,” he explains. “This is my DNA and my heritage, and it’s going to be purpose-led and values-driven.”
From a menu perspective, that means using Denver-based fresh Red Bird Farm chickens and Aspen Baking Company rolls; drawing on Ho’s Korean and French culinary expertise, the latter earned during his time working at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey in London and Atera and Joël Rubuchon in New York City; and keeping WingWok’s menu concise and focused. In the 12,000-square-foot Centennial store, just 200 square feet are dedicated for customers picking up food and retail sales of drinks, packaged snacks, and desserts; the rest goes to the kitchen, where Haugen and Ho have developed a process that centers around cooking in woks.
The chicken wings are coated in a light rice flour and cornstarch batter and fried twice, as is traditional, but what happens next is unique: Ho reduces each wing sauce in a wok until sticky and caramelized, then tosses the wings (or tenders) in the thick sauce, stir-frying them until burnished and fully coated. The wings achieve that ideal crispy-saucy consistency and chile can be added to your preference. In fact, the wok station will be fully on view at WingWok, so customers can watch their food being prepared.
The chicken wings and tenders come in several styles: sweet soy-garlic with crispy garlic slivers on top; a sour-spicy-sweet gochujang-and-tomato version called Yang Yeum; a beautifully bittersweet ginger-citrus flavor that comes garnished with paper-thin slices of kumquat; and a smoky dry-rubbed Buffalo wing served with properly chunky blue cheese dressing. (Gunning grew up outside of Buffalo, New York, and insisted that WingWok create its own version of the Queen City dish. While a bit sweet, WingWok’s dry-rubbed iteration has a lot of the bright, tangy spice you want from a good Buffalo wing.) It’s also possible that there may be a honey butter flavor on the opening menu, which Park explains is a very popular wing (and potato chip) flavor in South Korea.
Banchan, the vegetable-based sides and pickles that come with every Korean meal, are a big part of the WingWok menu, too. There’s kimchi, of course, as well as potato salad with sautéed cucumbers, pickled daikon, a cucumber salad with kimchi vinaigrette, a seaweed salad, and a crunchy cabbage-apple slaw. Crinkle-cut french fries that rival Shake Shack’s come plain or topped with roasted kimchi and spicy mayo. And rice, so integral to Korean cuisine, is a part of every order, either as a bed for soaking up the sauce under the wings or found inside WingWok’s burritos and chicken tender sandwich.
Desserts and drinks will not come from chef Ho’s kitchen, but rather from Park and Ho’s childhoods, when Korean treats like Chilsung cider (which Park says is South Korea’s Sprite) and sweets like fluffy roll cakes, Choco-Pies, and ice cream bars were beloved staples. WingWok will have a retail section stocked with such specialties, including honey butter chips and creamy Milkis strawberry sodas, as well as canned and bottled beers and soju, a refreshing Korean spirit similar to vodka.
The WingWok team brings technology to the table, too, which is no surprise given the tech backgrounds of the partners. There will be a custom ordering app and the point-of-sale system is integrated with the restaurant’s delivery partners, which include DoorDash and GrubHub. Those third-party services will determine WingWok’s delivery range, but breathable packaging and thoughtful sandwich wrapping means that even after a thirty-minute drive home—or a night in the refrigerator—we can attest that the wings remain delicious, if not as perfectly crispy as they are right out of the wok; a quick reheat, especially in an air fryer, returns them to life.
The Centennial shop, decorated with a wall mural that will be painted by Arapahoe students, is scheduled to open in late April or early May, when another important person will be there alongside Ho in the kitchen: WingWok’s first culinary intern, Fernanda Mendieta. Park and his partners are sponsoring her enrollment at culinary school in the fall, a program they plan to lean into at every WingWok location.
The long-term goal of the group? Two to three Colorado stores within the first year, and eventually, several hundred locations across the country. And just like that, with the sizzle of a wok, another locally grown chain is born.
WingWok will open during late spring 2021; 7530 South University Blvd., Ste. 120, Centennial