El Pollo Real – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)
Jay : I’m home! Mmm, what smells so good?
Gloria : I’m making chunchullo, a traditional Colombian dish, for dinner with the family tonight. Chunchullo.
Jay : What is that… like, uh, tacos?
Gloria : Yes, like tacos.
Manny : No, it isn’t. It’s the small intestine of a pig.
Jay : Oh, geez. Why can’t we eat regular food like normal people?
Understandably, to this gastronome, the funniest scenes depicting the cultural clash between Gloria Pritchett and her family and friends involve food. In the true tradition of the Latin stereotype, Gloria, the curvaceous Colombian bombshell portrayed by Sofia Vergara on the hilarious television comedy Modern Family likes her food spicy-painfully so. Conversely, in true stereotypical “white person” fashion, other characters just can’t handle the heat. In one memorable episode, Cameron, an exemplar of “Caucasianism,” takes Gloria to one of her favorite purveyors of piquancy in an effort to bond with her. After one bite, he sprints from the table shouting “I feel like I ate the sun!”
Interestingly, Colombian food isn’t especially spicy–at least not in comparison with the cuisine of other Latin American nations. As with most nations, Colombian cuisine varies by region. In some regions, such specialties as guinea pigs and roasted ants are considered delicacies while in other regions Colombians are repulsed by these dishes. The Colombian diet includes a lot of meat, poultry and seafood, particularly in coastal areas where lobster and fish are plentiful. Fresh fruit is also abundant. Shakira, one of the most popular and successful pop musicians in the world calls Colombian food “really good–and really fattening.”
Both Sofia Vergara and Shakira lament the scarcity of great Colombian food in the United States. Perhaps they should visit Albuquerque’s International District where El Pollo Real has been pleasing Colombian food aficionados and poultry-loving palates since 2008. It’s only fitting that the Duke City’s only Colombian restaurant is located in the the city’s most diverse district where many of its most delicious dining destinations reside. In International District fashion, El Pollo’s menu offers not only Colombian culinary offerings, but foods from Mexico and Cuba…and contrary to the name on the marquee, this dynamic restaurant offers much more than chicken.
El Pollo Real, which translates to “the royal chicken,” has one of the most intriguing menus of any Latin American restaurant in the city. Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly note all the familiar sounding dishes, and if the names aren’t familiar, the descriptions of the dishes just might be. Appetizers, which include salsa and chips, quesadillas, and guacamole with chips, are especially familiar, but you can’t get those at hundreds of Mexican and New Mexican restaurants throughout the state. Try something different instead–such as arepas, maize-based bread served plain or filled, which were introduced to Albuquerque by Cafe Choroni, the superb but short-lived Venezuelan restaurant.
Try the yuca (not yucca, New Mexico’s state flower) frita con salsa rosada, a starchy root vegetable often referred to as cassava which is deep-fried to a golden hue. By itself the yuca didn’t completely win us over. it is a bit on the desiccated side and has an inconsistent texture–crispy on the edges and somewhat elastic in the middle. What did win us over is the salsa rosada, a vegetable stew-like salsa wholly unlike the salsa rosada (pink sauce) so popular in Colombia. The salsa rosada is served warm and may remind you of a very comforting stew, albeit one with a bite. A bowlful wouldn’t be enough.
In Colombia as in Chile where they are considered the national dish, empanadas are a popular appetizer. El Pollo Real offers empanadas engorged with pork or chicken. These terrific fritters are constructed from the same cornmeal masa used to prepare arepas and are served two to an order with an incendiary salsa redolent with piquant peppers. The salsa will challenge even New Mexican fire-eaters. The empanadas are served just off-the-fryer hot so that when you bite into them wisps of steam will escape. Eat them too quickly and you probably won’t appreciate just how good they are. Interestingly McDonald’s in Colombia has decided to adapt its menu to the local market and has introduced variations on numerous local foods such as the empanada. It’s unlikely McDonald’s can ever duplicate the deliciousness of El Pollo Real’s version.
The restaurant’s most diverse, indulgent and expensive (under $25) offering is the picada para dos (literally “chopped for two”), a Thanksgiving platter-sized entree that should probably be para tres (for three) or cuatro (four). The platter is piled high with little pieces of charcoal meat, charcoal chicken breast, Colombian sausage, morsilla, pork skin, corn cakes and fried plantains. It’s a veritable feast for a famished family. It’s also a great dish to preview just how well El Pollo Real prepares its charcoal-roasted chicken. The charcoal imprint is very reminiscent of that left by charcoal grilling implements used in Vietnamese grilling. In other words, the charcoal imparts a wonderful deliciousness. The chicken is very moist and tender. So is the charcoal grilled meat.
When morcillas (a blood pudding sausage made by cooking blood with a filler until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled) are served at any restaurant, I’m always grateful for dining companions who aren’t intrepid enough to try them. That means I can have them all. El Pollo Real’s morcillas are purplish sausages stuffed with rice, onions, pork, mint and of course, pig blood. They make me grateful for grandparents who taught me to be open-minded about food. The pork skins are essentially chicharrones or fried pork rinds. They’re quite good as is the Colombian sausage. The fried plantains are a perfect foil for all the protein, offering a slightly sweet contrast.
The August, 2012 relocation of Pollito Con Papas to Gibson Boulevard was certainly apropos because it meant chicken as prepared in two bordering South American nations can now be found within two miles of one another in the Duke City’s International District. There are few semblances between Peruvian poultry and Colombian chicken, but you’ll be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Both are outstanding–orders of magnitude better than what you’ll find at KFC.
The charbroiled chicken can be ordered in quarter, half and whole sizes. A whole chicken can feed a small family with two of each breasts, wings, thighs and legs. It’s available Mexican style with beans, rice, salsa and warm tortillas or Tropical style with plantains, rice and a single arepa. Go tropical! The plantains are lightly fried and sweet, but not overly so. The rice is buttery and delicious. The arepa has a prominent corn flavor and is served steaming hot. It’s the charbroiled chicken which really shines.
El Pollo Real is the type of restaurant even Gloria Pritchett’s family might enjoy. The menu has a wealth of dishes sure to please even the most finicky eater, but it’s also a treasure to adventurous diners who want to sample something new and different every visit.
El Pollo Real Colombiano
600 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 December 2012
1st VISIT: 10 November 2012
# OF VISITS:2
BEST BET: Picada Para Dos, Colombian Empanadas, Whole Charbroiled Chicken, Arepas