News & Politics

March 2005: Pollo Campero

When word got out that a branch of the Guatemalan fried-chicken chain Pollo Campero was about to open, the Latino community started lining up.

Lining Up for Delicious Guatemalan Fried Chicken

It happened in Los Angeles. It happened in Virginia. And it happened in Maryland.

When word got out that a branch of the Guatemalan fried-chicken chain Pollo Campero was about to open, the Latino community started lining up. Literally. In some cases at 3 and 4 am. It's the sort of phenomenon–along with tales of people smuggling bags of fried chicken over the Texas border–that makes the food-obsessed wonder. Is it all about nostalgia for the familiar, or something more?

There was only one way to be sure, so one frigid Sunday evening, we headed to the newest Campero in Wheaton for a pile of fried chicken.

This is the 18th Campero in the United States–there are more than 150 others in Mexico, Central America, and Ecuador. Back home, Camperos are beyond the reach of most. Here, because of higher wages, a Campero meal is affordable, which is probably part of the reason these brightly lit fast-food eateries are always jammed with Latin Americans.

Fried chicken is the thing here–the only thing, though there's a long roster of sides, too. No baked boneless or rotisserie birds. Just beautifully fried breasts, legs, wings, and thighs, with a dusting of piquant seasoned flour that renders the skin the color of saffron.

Ask the Pollo Campero brass what makes their bird so scrumptious and they'll happily tell you it's never frozen, that it sits in the flour coating for an hour before being flash-fried at very high temperatures, and that it doesn't hang around. What they won't reveal are the 11 secret ingredients in the flour mix shipped from Guatemala every few weeks, though flour, salt, and pepper are givens. Whatever the recipe, legs and thighs come out of the fryer moist and succulent, breasts and wings a mite less so, though still delicious. The meat-to-crust ratio is perfect, the seasoning flavorful with a hint of spiciness.

Sides are worthy of the bird. Fries are about as good as they get with frozen potatoes–thin, crisp, and hot. Slaw is mayonnaisey and commercially made for Campero. Spanish-style rice with tomato sauce, bits of green pepper, and onion is better than what Baja Fresh has to offer. Two nods to America–cottony rolls and frozen mashed potatoes with gravy –are just that: nods.

The real star among the sides, though, is the beans. They could almost make you forget all about the chicken. A cross between soup and stew, the piquant broth is thick with pintos, nuggets of sausage, and peppers. Spoon it into warm corn tortillas. Dribble it over the rice. Dollop on one of the salsas at the bar–smoked chipotle is tops–and make a meal of it.

Drinks will be familiar to diners who frequent Central American restaurants: horchata, the milky almond cooler; slightly sour tamarindo; and manaron, made from the juice of the cashew nut.

The Pollo Campero folks have the good sense not to attempt dessert. But they do sell first-rate Cozy Shack rice and caramel puddings and Marta's not-bad rendition of flan with burnt-sugar syrup on the bottom.

To eat at a Pollo Campero outpost is to become a convert. We've been countless times. And if one should open in my neighborhood, you might just find me camped outside before the sun comes up.

Pollo Campero

11420 Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-6868. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Also at 1355 E. University Blvd., Langley Park; 5852 Columbia Pike, Falls Church; and 496 Elden St., Herndon.

Atmosphere: Upbeat fast food with real wooden tables and cushioned wooden chairs, orange and green accents, and the winking Campero chicken logo.

Food: Fabulous fried chicken and sausage-studded beans shored up with good tortillas and fries. No alcohol.

Service: Friendly, helpful, and fast.

Price: Combos from $13.99 (eight pieces, two sides, and rolls or tortillas) to $28.34 (16 pieces, four sides, rolls or tortillas). À la carte items: $2.99 for thigh and leg portion, $21.99 for 20 chicken pieces.

Value: Excellent.

Bottom Line: Great fried chicken and beans are worth a trip. Stores also are planned for Gaithersburg, Alexandria, Manassas, Woodbridge, and downtown DC.