From Southern crisp to Korean spice, Utah is battered in a fried chicken frenzy

The stipulations put forth weren’t harsh: Open at least 50 to 100 miles away and change the name of the restaurant.

For Mr. Charlie’s Chicken Fingers owners Cody Hilliard and Bartley Melton, the recipe for both delicious fried chicken and success were clear — built on a foundation over 1,900 miles away in Alabama at Jim Bob’s Chicken Fingers & Breakfast. Melton missed Southern fried chicken and sweet tea terribly while living in Heber City, so the duo talked about what it would take to strike out on their own.

“Once we had the permission to move out here, we just changed the name,” Hilliard said, landing on Charlie’s as a nod to the Alabama chicken spot owner he had worked for at Jim Bob’s: Chuck.

There’s wildly popular Nashville hot chicken at Pretty Bird in downtown Salt Lake City, curry fried chicken, fried chicken in gas station restaurants, classic fried chicken and more — from Provo to Centerville — cementing Utah’s status as a hot spot for crispy fowl in many forms.

(The Salt Lake Tribune | Brodi Ashton) Mr. Charlie’s Chicken Fingers in Murray.

At 554 W. 4500 South in Murray, Mr. Charlie’s sits 2 miles from the first-ever KFC restaurant, which opened in 1952. Nearly 70 years later, the restaurants are a two-piece in the flourishing bucket of fried chicken restaurants all over Utah.

Brian Choi hatched the idea for Bok Bok in 2015 at the urging of his friends and because of a hankering for a Korean street food snack.

He invited a few friends over for a taste test of his Korean fried chicken recipe — and the guest list quickly ballooned to 30 people who raved and told him to try it professionally.

“Nobody really takes it to heart when someone says that,” Choi said.

Still, he gave it a shot with a pop-up shop — but felt overmatched trying to start a business while studying at Brigham Young University — and put it on the back burner.

When his parents relocated to Utah from California in early 2018, Choi rekindled the idea and began workshopping the recipe and sauces with his father.

“People here love fried chicken. People here love Korean flavor,” Choi said. “If I put one and one together, I thought I could do something special here.”

What emerged was double-fried, crispy chicken strips smothered in sticky, garlicky sauce. The sauce takes three to five days to make to complement the chicken’s crunchy texture.

Choi idolizes his dad — who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and cooked in a business park cafeteria in Los Angeles, learning an array of recipes from photos in cookbooks.

“If he bought 10 cookbooks and was able to learn how to make one really good dish,” Choi said, “then he considered it a good investment.”

The father-son duo worked on the chicken recipe for three months before opening their small location in a strip mall in American Fork, a space Choi had originally planned to offer to food trucks as a commissary during his cooking hiatus.

About a month after opening, Bok Bok’s popularity soared, leading Choi to open another location in Provo in October 2019.

“Utah was ready for something like that,” he said. “Of all the foods that I thought of, it was going to be Korean food at the end of the day if I were to try a food concept here.”

Hilliard said Mr. Charlie’s success since opening in January 2019 has been built on sticking to a pure Southern recipe with antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free and never-frozen chicken. The restaurant offers tender, juicy fried and grilled chicken strips — as well as sandwiches and wraps.

“It’s a true, simple, authentic taste,” he said. “It’s not anything fancy, but it’s also still good quality.”

“People in Utah love sauce,” Hilliard said. “That’s a fact.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) The chicken sandwich combo at Pretty Bird, a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant on Regent Street in Salt Lake City, Monday April 23, 2018.

After Mr. Charlie’s opened, it appeared to him new chicken restaurants were coming online constantly: ChickQueen, another Korean chicken spot highlighting thick, crispy batter, opened in South Salt Lake; and Super Chix, a growing franchise with locations Texas and Alabama, popped up in American Fork.

“I can’t even remember all the names,” Hilliard said. “It’s crazy. Before we opened, none of that was here.”

Hilliard believes there is a cap for chicken finger-only restaurant space — especially with heavy hitter Raising Cane’s set to carve out space in West Valley City in the near future.

Still, he’s optimistic that the arrival of Cane’s won’t keep his restaurant’s popularity cooped up.

“The more people they feed, the more research a lot of those people will do,” Hilliard said. “‘I wonder if there’s anything else like this.‘”

Choi sees no limit for chicken joints right now in a growing and changing Utah, comparing the ceiling to a certain other dish found on every corner.

“When I go to a burger joint, I never stop at just one burger joint. I’m always looking for a better burger,” Choi said. “I think that’s just human nature, you always look for something better.”

ChickQueen • 3390 S. State St., South Salt Lake.

Curry Fried Chicken • 660 S. State St., Salt Lake City.

HallPass Blaze of Thunder • 153 S. Rio Grande St. (The Gateway), Salt Lake City.

Kevin’s Fried Chicken • 524 W. 4500 South, Murray.

Meier’s Country Fried Chicken • 4708 S. Holladay Blvd., Holladay.

Mr. Charlie’s Chicken Fingers • 554 W. 5400 South, Murray.

Pretty Bird • 146 S. Regent St., Salt Lake City.

The Bird • 2432 W 1700 South, Syracuse.

C & B Maddox Famous Chicken • 698 North Main, Layton.

Sticky Bird Red Barn Farms Chicken • 504 N Station Pkwy, Farmington.

Bok Bok • 1181 N. Canyon Road, Provo; and 648 E. State Road, American Fork.

Dirty Bird Fried Chxx • 495 E. 600 North, Provo.

Kluck’s Krispy Chicken • 1066 S. 750 East, Orem.

Lovebirds Hot Chicken • 4801 N. University Ave., Provo.

Slim Chickens • 1250 E. State St., Lehi.

Super Chix • 643 Pacific Drive, American Fork.

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