At the Table: Bonchon’s fusion in Schenectady hits the right notes

A Cajun shrimp boil from Union Bonchon Chicken & Cajun Seafood in Schenectady. (Caroline Lee) 

A Cajun shrimp boil from Union Bonchon Chicken & Cajun Seafood in Schenectady. (Caroline Lee) 

Throughout the ages and all over the world, people have to gathered to share food.

If they lived near water, they cooked seafood. And if they cooked it in a pot with vegetables and seasonings, and invited a bunch of people to eat, it would be what’s known in the southern U.S. as a seafood boil. We don’t have the exclusive rights; cooked seafood and vegetables shows up in lots of places around the world.

So I was surprised — and I wasn’t — when I found that Cajun and Korean cuisine came together in the form of Union Bonchon Chicken & Cajun Seafood restaurant on upper Union Street in Schenectady.

Let’s start with the name, Bonchon, which is also the moniker of a multinational chain of Korean chicken restaurants unaffiliated with this one. The Union Street restaurant sells its version of Bonchon crispy chicken, which is double-breaded. It also sells Cajun seafood.

There you go, a fusion.

The restaurant is in a stand-alone building with a few parking spots in the front and a glass storefront window. There was a “Now Open” banner and a sign advertising bubble tea.

Inside is all business.

The counter takes up much of the space that’s not the kitchen, and there are narrow counters and some chairs at the windows. Not much ambiance, but it was clean and most people probably take out or get delivery.

Even with a mask on it smelled wonderful inside, like good fried food. The cashier alternated between the counter and the telephone. Late in the afternoon, business was steady. Two other people came in and three other orders were ready for pickup.

Bonchon Chicken & Shrimp partners with Grubhub and other delivery services, and has a separate entrance for delivery drivers.

You can find Bonchon-style chicken wings on the menu ($9.95 for 10) and choose from sauces such as sweet red chili and Buffalo. There’s fried fish and chicken, alone or as meals. Six pieces of fried shrimp or chicken tenders with french fries and fried rice is $8.95.

The menu has a section headed “Get Your Hands Dirty,” and this is where the Cajun comes in.

You build a complete meal starting with the protein: green mussels, snow crab, crawfish, shrimp (head on or no head) and two lobster tails. Then choose a flavor for the sauce, like lemon pepper or Cajun, and a spice level. Add sides if you want. The meals come with corn, egg, potato and sausage.

What we have here, in effect, is a Cajun seafood boiled meal. Popular in Louisiana, major festivals and fundraisers often feature a shrimp, crab or crawfish boil.

We arrived home from Union Bonchon at happy hour, with husband Eric in charge of drinks while I was unpacking our order.

As I photographed the contents of each box, he peered into the one holding the fried cheese sticks ($4.95). “Can we have one now?” he asked.

We were looking down on 10 thick sticks of whatever stringy cheese they use coated in a crispy browned crust. We decided we should have a few for a first course.

We ate them on small plates in front of the fire and boy, did we enjoy them. The cheese was still soft, and the coating tasted salty and delicious. Over two days we ate all 10 pieces.

Eric chose fried catfish (two pieces, $5.25) for his dinner. We usually eat catfish around here with Cajun seasoning to tone down the strong flavor of the fish, so we got a small container of powdered seasonings to sprinkle on top.

“It has a pretty thick crust,” said Eric. “The fish is a little bit crumbly.” There was almost more breading than fish, was his observation.

“The seasoning gave it a little bit of a kick,” he said, approvingly. It was not bad, he added.

There were at least six nugget-sized pieces of catfish in the order, enough for a meal. But why call it two pieces? Perhaps the pieces added up to two fillets.

I totally disagreed with Eric about the catfish; it was excellent. Heated up the next day in the toaster oven, the fish came out moist and mild, and the cornmeal in the coating made it extra crunchy. The coating-to-fish ratio was perfect.

He also got a small order of shrimp fried rice ($5.55) that featured nice, plump pink shrimp. We thought the rice was a bit dry but the shrimp were very good.

I had the shrimp boil ($17.95, no head), though the meals are not labeled as such. The meal comes in a sturdy clear plastic bag and is too big for a dinner plate. There were a lot, and I mean at least a pound of large shrimp, two halves of a Russet potato, a whole boiled egg, slices of sausage and hunks of corn on the cob in the spicy sauce. It easily feeds two.

I’d ordered the garlic butter sauce, but turns out everything is a bit Cajun anyway, and I liked it very much. It was rich and buttery, and just a little spicy.

The shrimp were cooked exactly the right amount and were delicious, especially with the garlic butter sauce. However, that made them slippery and hard to peel.

Another advantage of peeling them before cooking is you can be sure they are absolutely clean. A few of these could have been cleaner.

I liked the potatoes, too. They retained their flavor and weren’t overwhelmed by the Cajun-garlic-butter sauce. The corn on the cob is out of season now and theirs wasn’t the best example. I passed on the egg, but I really liked the slices of salty smoked sausage.

The cost of our meal, with one sweet passion fruit tea, came to $42.87. Eric observed that they didn’t offer dessert, so he fixed himself a big bowl of ice cream instead.

The New York Times describes a seafood boil in New Orleans where folks gather around newspaper-lined tables upon which are dumped large amounts of boiled shellfish to eat with your hands. A Cajun boiled meal from Union Bonchon is kind of like that.

The restaurant has been open for four months and is planning another location in Troy. Stop by for a Cajun meal or some double-breaded chicken wings. And don’t forget the cheese sticks.

Union Bonchon Chicken & Cajun Seafood

WHERE: 1638 Union St., Schenectady; 518-901-0033;
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
HOW MUCH: $42.87, plus a few bucks in the tip jar
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Parking in front and on street. Delivery available through third parties such as GrubHub. No bathroom for the public.

Categories: Food

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