Pollo asado, marinated grilled chicken, has been a staple in Mexico for years, but save for those pockets within metropolitan areas heavily populated by scions of Mexico, it hasn’t made significant inroads throughout the fruited plain. Mexican grilled chicken restaurants seem to fly under the radar, unbeknownst to much of the local populace outside the Mexican neighborhoods in which they’re clustered. Many grilled chicken sahops–even in Albuquerque– operate in ramshackle, lilliputian buildings not much larger than roadside stands.
In the 1980s, El Pollo Loco, a Mexican grilled chicken chain expanded into the United States, launching in about a dozen states including New Mexico. Today, the chain operates in five western states (Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas and California) as well as in Illinois (and in episodes of Breaking Bad), but despite expanding beyond its grilled chicken niche to include burritos, quesadillas, salads and more, it hasn’t been able to compete significantly with the popular pseudo Mexican concept restaurants.
After Albuquerque’s erstwhile El Pollo Loco restaurant–which operated on San Mateo (in the location which currently houses Siam Cafe)–closed, it would be more than a decade before another Mexican grilled chicken restaurant would open in a heavily-trafficked commercial area. In May, 2012, El Pollo Picante launched in the Market Place at Journal Center just a few doors down from Torinos @ Home. My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, a discerning diner, was one of the restaurant’s first guests, enjoying it so much, he’s returned several times…and he brought me with him.
El Pollo Picante is owned and operated by Steve and Cindy Lee, a genial Korean brother and sister who know what they’re doing behind a grill. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or have become a regular, you’ll receive the type of personalized attention you can’t help but appreciate. Cindy will take your order while Steve mans the gas-fired grill visible from the counter where you order, evoking the captivating aroma of marinated chicken being expertly grilled. To anyone who’s ever enjoyed Mexican grilled chicken, that aroma is an aphrodisiac, a siren’s call. It’s an irresistible lure.
The aroma is a preview of poultry perfection. It’s mouth-watering truth in advertising. The marinade penetrates deeply into the meat, turning the skin an ochre hue and imbuing it with a seasoned flavor. If you’re of the habit of discarding grilled chicken skin, this skin will break you of that habit. It’s crispy without being dry and it’s thoroughly delicious. The hot flames of the grill sear in all the spices and tangy goodness of the marinade. A half-chicken order (dark meat) gets you two wings, two legs, two thighs and two thighs. As with all chicken–grilled, roasted, rotisseried, baked or fried–the most moist and juicy pieces are the thighs. You can also request all white meat if you prefer. The breasts are snowy white, tender and surprisingly moist.
At the risk of committing sacrilege, El Pollo Picante’s Mexican grilled chicken blows away the chicken at El Pollo Loco and the Chicken Flameante at Taco Cabana. Similar to those restaurants, Polo Picante chicken is accompanied by Mexican inspired sides: beans, Spanish rice and corn tortillas. These sides are wholly unnecessary. They’re also not especially good…maybe the caliber of airline food (not the peanuts and pretzels). Luckily they’re served with pico de gallo and salsa. These are good and do greatly improve the flavor of the beans and rice.
When it first opened, El Pollo Picante’s menu was pretty much limited to Mexican grilled chicken, but has since expanded to include teriyaki chicken and beef as well as a curry plate, all Korean style. My friend Señor Plata and I are applying our charm to convince Cindy that the menu should also include KFC. No, not that greasy chain chicken. KFC stands for Korean Fried Chicken and it’s the rage among savvy diners in Los Angeles. The pairing of Mexican grilled chicken and KFC would make El Pollo Picante a formidable poultry presence.
While researching the blogosphere for information about El Pollo Picante, I happened upon a refreshing new food blog called “Once Again We Have Eaten Well.” Written by Edward Sung (a long time friend of this blog) and his lovely better half Hannah Walraven, Once Again… is a delightful change of pace from the mundanity of most food blogs. The blog employs a novel conversational approach so entertaining and realistic, you’ll find yourself transported to the table with Edward and Hannah. It’s almost as good as being there with them.
El Pollo Picante
7600 Jefferson Street N.E., Suite 5
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 1 August 2012
1st VISIT: 30 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Half Chicken