Campero started a craze in Chelsea, but it's not the only game in town. Whose chicken rules the roost?
The hottest culinary opening so far this year wasn't a four-star restaurant or a venture from a celebrity chef. It was a branch of the Guatemalan chicken chain Pollo Campero.
When the restaurant opened its doors in Chelsea a month ago - the first Massachusetts outpost - madness ensued. Central Americans, eager for a taste of home, lined up for hours in the rain, Campero's neon sign of a chicken in a cowboy hat reflected in the puddles at their feet. (Why does that chicken look so happy, so enthusiastic about its fate?) There was so much traffic at the drive-through and in the parking lot, a police detail was required to direct it. Weeks later, you can still expect a wait for your chicken.
What is the fuss about? Pollo Campero is famous for its fried chicken, which has skin so crunchy it's more like bark; the chicken itself is juicy, spurting when your teeth break through the surface. It's really good, and that's why almost everyone in the joint is tearing into it like they were raised by wolves, ignoring the many grilled chicken options on the menu.
Yet just down the street - offering nearly instant, line-free gratification - is Pollos a la Brasa El Chalan, a restaurant specializing in Peruvian rotisserie chicken. El Pollo Loco, from Mexico, serves citrus-marinated grilled chicken nearby on Revere Beach Parkway. Farther afield, there's Machu Picchu Charcoal Chicken & Grill in Somerville; Alex's Chimis, offering rotisserie chicken and Dominican dishes in Jamaica Plain; and in East Boston Pollo Doreno (Salvadoran) and Pollos Mr. Mario (Colombian), Pollos a la Brasa Beto's and another branch of El Chalan, and several other restaurants devoted to the chicken of the owner's homeland. Campero is just a small part of Boston's pollo landscape. (And the accompanying array of chicken iconography is staggering - dancing birds, laughing birds, chubby little chickens in T-shirts, a chicken wearing the wide-brimmed hat and poncho of a "chalan," or Peruvian horse wrangler.)
There are slight regional variations from place to place: sauces made from the yellow pepper aji amarillo and the herb huacatay at the Peruvian restaurants, lime wedges and tortillas with Pollo Campero's grilled chicken, a wonderfully intense garlic sauce at Alex's. But mostly you'll find constants: chicken marinated and/or rubbed with spices and garlic, then turned on a spit over live coals until it's golden and fragrant. On the side, there's generally a salad of crisp iceberg and pale tomatoes, plus some fairly uninspired fries. Other common accompaniments include fried yuca and maduros or tostones - sweet plantains or twice-fried, savory ones. But the chicken is the star of the show.
So whose is tops? Over the course of several weeks we set ourselves to the task of finding out, in the process consuming entire flocks' worth of chickens, ensuring bad chicken karma for all eternity and incurring nightmares of being pecked to death by giant, angry pullets. Though we tried several restaurants that serve chicken but don't specialize in it, it just wasn't the same: To make a great bird, it takes hyperfocus, total dedication. At the end, we wound up with five great versions, any of which we'd be happy to eat again (if not for a while). A tasting panel of 11 people then convened to choose the best of the best.
A few notes. The quality of the chicken can be affected by how long it's been sitting around - a crisp-skinned, juicy bird at noon can be just the opposite later in the day. Takeout also affects the crispness of the skin and any fried sides, as they steam in the bag on the way home. Eating at some of these places means dusting off your high school vocabulary or improvising if you don't speak Spanish. And, finally, there were places we loved that didn't make the cut. Worth mentioning: Rosticeria Cancun in East Boston is a tiny nook with walls painted the color of a mango licuado, playing music that would make you shake your hips if there were room. For tacos and hole-in-the-wall charm it can't be beat, and the chicken is a deal: $11 for a whole bird with tortillas and heaping containers of rice, beans, and salad. It just wasn't quite as good as the chicken at other places. Ditto Pollos Mr. Mario, where the warmth of our hosts almost made up for it. (Food just tastes better when the waitress calls me "mami" and "nina," the same seasoning effect as "hon" at a diner.)
Here are our favorites:
Alex's Chimis. The restaurant is named for its signature sandwich, a Dominican-style burger, but Alex's business card has its priorities straight: "Chicken and chimis," it says, then promises "the best rotisserie chicken in town." We'll hear a similar claim again soon (stay tuned), but if "town" means Jamaica Plain, it's hard to argue with the assertion. The interior of Alex's Chimis is bare bones, brightly lit with a couple of seats and a counter. Order a whole chicken, and the person helping you will grab a bird, fling it onto the counter, cleave it into pieces with the speed of a chicken ninja, and nestle it in a container. Then comes the key question: "Sauce?" Unless you are a vampire, say yes to this zingy drizzle, laden with garlic and applied liberally. The chicken here is generally juicy, though some tasters felt the breast meat was a bit dry, if flavorful. Well-seasoned skin is crisped to an alluring mahogany. In addition to the usual sides, you'll find the likes of chofan, a Dominican take on fried rice, and moro de gandules, rice with pigeon peas. Without sides, a chicken is $9; balancing taste and price, Alex's Chimis offers excellent value.
Machu Picchu Charcoal Chicken & Grill. When the owners of Machu Picchu expanded and moved across the street from their original restaurant, they turned the smaller space into a Peruvian chicken joint. Pollo a la brasa, or rotisserie chicken grilled over coals, is a way of life in Peru; for many, eating it is a weekly ritual. This is a cute little spot, painted red, gold, and green, with a terra-cotta roof over the bar. The chicken is very juicy, even the white meat, and the skin is golden. The spicing is mellow, accenting but not overwhelming the poultry. When brought straight from the spit to the table, it's just about perfect. Tasters commended it for being juicy and delicious. It comes with two spicy sauces, mayonnaise-like in consistency: a yellow one made with aji amarillo, a chili key to Peruvian cuisine; and a pale green one made with huacatay, or black mint, which lends a grassy flavor. They make great dipping sauce for your fries, too. You'll also find specialties such as choclo, giant kernels of corn served on the cob with cubes of white cheese; quinoa salad; and salchipapas, french fries mixed together with hot dogs.
Pollo Campero. Yes, the fried chicken is what all of Chelsea is lining up for. But don't overlook the grilled. (OK, get both.) It has a citrus-y flavor, with plenty of herbs, and a nice char on the skin; the lime wedges it's served with do much to perk up dry white meat. It's not quite as piquant as some of the other offerings, but it's solid. Though this was one taster's favorite, others felt it was the least exciting of the bunch. Pollo Campero offers one of the better takes on fries you'll find at a chicken joint, but they travel about as well as a carsick toddler. Eat them at the restaurant, but don't try this at home. The dining room is decorated with accents in fast-food orange, with plenty of tables. Expect some minor jostling if you're seated beside the line snaking through the room. The horchata, a cinnamon-laced drink made from almonds, is quite good here, and the greasy, bacon-y pinto beans are a guilty pleasure. There's also a bar with several different salsas; the green tomatillo version was a favorite. Worth noting is that the drive-through, though not the dining room, is open till 4 a.m. on weekends. I'm guessing this chicken would taste even better at the end of a wild evening.
Pollos a la Brasa Beto's. This is a super-friendly little takeout place; you can sit and eat next door at the saffron-painted bakery Peach's & Cream, which offers the purple corn drink chicha morada and alfajores, cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche. The chicken here has a perfect Coppertone tan, golden and kissed by the flames. Its flavor has more of a barbecue or bacon tinge, which many tasters noted, and it's comparatively quite juicy, with crackling skin. The meat has a pink tinge, and it's pleasantly salty, as if brined. You'll get salad and fries, yuca, or plantains, plus a plate of white rice. The sauce is the pale green variety made from chilies and huacatay (it could use a bit more heat). Kick back, take in the telenovelas on the TV, and enjoy.
Pollos a la Brasa El Chalan. There are two branches of this Peruvian-owned restaurant, which boasts of being the first and the best charcoal rotisserie chicken in Boston. I'm not positive it's the first, though the East Boston El Chalan has been open since 1997 - a tiny place with two levels of seating, salmon-beige walls, and TVs also tuned to telenovelas. However, according to our panelists, it is indeed the best. The skin on these birds is dark, charred, and slightly greasy. It's heavily spiced and salted, with cumin a dominant note that a few found overwhelming. This chicken by far packs the biggest punch of flavor. Though many tasters praised it for being juicy, some found the white meat dry. One person gave it an A+ across the board, grading on crispness and flavor of skin, taste of meat, and juiciness. El Chalan's chicken comes with a good green sauce; it is worth noting that the fried yuca here may also be the best in town. It's light, greaseless, and perfectly flaky-tender inside. And there you have it: Winner winner, chicken dinner!
The envelope, please
Our tasting panel crowned Pollos a la Brasa El Chalan the winner of the pollo match. A whopping six out of 11 people gave it the nod. Three people chose Machu Picchu, one chose Pollo Campero, and one - a Peruvian, no less! - chose the Dominican Alex's Chimis. I had the advantage of sampling each of these chickens at a restaurant as well as to go. Eating in, my favorites were Machu Picchu and Beto's. For takeout, I preferred Machu Picchu.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.