YOU PROBABLY RECENTLY ATE A large roasted bird. You are thinking, I do not want to eat another such thing for about, oh, 350-something days. In this you are wrong.
If you’ve been to Mexico you’ve probably seen signs promising something along the lines of “Pollo al Carbon, Estilo Sinaloa”—Charcoal-Grilled Chicken, Sinaloan-Style. The state of Sinaloa is to grilled chicken what Kentucky is to fried, though a sign like that shouldn’t really be taken as proof that there’s actually either real charcoal or real Sinaloans involved. Sinaloan chicken is just a name, like Texas toast, by now, and many places advertising pollo al carbon actually cook over gas. Here in Chicago, it’s hard to get a real live fire charcoal grill with proper venting approved by the city, much easier to do a gas grill, and gas-grilled chicken can certainly be plenty good.
Nevertheless, the flavor from charcoal is better, some of us think way better, and so it’s good news that the number of places which have managed to install a genuine live charcoal grill for Mexican-style chicken is steadily climbing. I’ve managed to identify five (plus a second location for one), all but one opened within the last few years, though I won’t be surprised (in fact, I’ll be delighted) if readers are able to identify more. To be sure, as I said, you can’t trust the signage—you have to go inside and get a good look at the equipment (as well as eat the chicken).
How do you tell? Look beyond the chicken on the grill, smoke rising from it, and the signs are pretty evident. A charcoal grill will likely have two things—a separate box for burning down the charcoal to glowing embers, and a way to raise the entire grill, even with chicken on it, so you can scoop the glowing embers and dump them in. (Cooking over embers will give you a lower, more even heat than if there’s flames shooting up, burning the chicken.) A gas grill is likewise easy to spot—it has knobs, to adjust the gas. If there’s knobs, it’s gas, if there’s a hotbox, it’s charcoal—that simple. If you go in a place because it smelled good and you see knobs, just tell them you came in to pick up a menu, and leave.
As for the chicken itself, there’s usually two choices—either natural, which usually means it was just seasoned with salt and pepper, or Pollo Adobado, which has been coated with a red chile paste, which has a little heat to it but in general is not much spicier than bottled American barbecue sauce. Either way is good.
At most of these places, about $15 will get you a whole chicken (“pollo entero”) combo with some rice, tortillas, and your choice of refried or charro beans (soupier beans cooked with bits of chopped meat, usually hot dogs), along with some possible accompaniments like grilled bulb onions or jalapeños, onion slices soaked in red wine vinegar, and a choice of salsas. That will feed two happily; most of the places also offer a deal during the week where you buy a whole chicken combo and get another half chicken free. Which lets you come home with more bird to chop into chicken salad, or whatever; I guarantee it will only be a million times better in whatever you put it in than the soppy rotisserie bird at your nearest grocery store would have been.
My original plan was to rank the ones I’d found, but seriously, they’re all chickens and they’re all cooked skillfully over charcoal, there’s not that much difference to judge them by. I’ve noted a few distinguishing features, so pick one that sounds good and try it, you’ll be glad you did.
Where: 1315 W. 18th St. (Pilsen)
As seen in the cover image for this story, everything’s visible to the customer here. So you know your chicken is hot off the grill and damn near perfect—lots of tasty char bits on the outside, yet juicy and succulent inside. Points for the quality of the salsas, too, especially the darker one with the taste of charred peppers; between that and a pretty accessible location, this is easy to recommend as a place to start. They have the buy a combo, get a half deal on Tuesday and Thursday.
El Pollo Real
Where: 3823 W. 31st (Little Village); 3534 W. 63rd (Marquette Park)
You don’t have to see the grill to be sure the 31st street original location uses charcoal—you’ll know as soon as you drive into the cloud of smoke that hangs over the entire block. But that’s what the kitchen looks like, above—as Titus Ruscitti (who found it as far as internet foodies are concerned) said, “The temperature back there was no joke, and you really gotta love a place that doesn’t take any shortcuts.” The chicken tends to get a little less char here, but it’s very good. I haven’t been to the newish spinoff on 63rd, but I’d be very surprised if they didn’t grill the same way (and a picture at Yelp suggests that’s correct). Free half chicken with whole chicken combo Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
El Pollo Regio
Where: 2007 S. Damen (Pilsen)
The riot of exterior signage, much of it in English, doesn’t exactly match up with the plain, almost empty interior, in which almost nothing is in English. But the chicken was good, and they run the half chicken with purchase of whole chicken combo special every day.
Mezquite Pollo Express
Where: 2809 W. 55th (Gage Park)
If—for some reason—you’re going for chicken with someone who doesn’t like chicken, this is your choice. Though they do up plenty of chicken on their mesquite wood grill, they have a wide-ranging menu including skirt steak grilled over the same mesquite, as well as tacos (not just steak and chicken, but also cochinita pibil), which are served on handmade tortillas. The guacamole (also handmade) is good too. They do the half chicken deal on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Where: 4429 W. Diversey (Hermosa) NOTE: CLOSED
The only one on this list on the north side, and also the oldest just judging by looks, this sitdown restaurant attached to a Mexican grocery store grills chicken and rabbit on a ramshackle grill right over wood fire (plainly visible as you look in the front window). Though that’s only part of what they offer—they have al pastor tacos (on the cone), they grill shrimp, they have guisados (stews), and so on and on. Between the choices and the atmosphere (I think ramshackle describes it best) this is one of my favorite Mexican restaurants on the north side, but the chicken can end up on the dry side, maybe just because they’re not as as microfocused on poultry as others and are more likely to cook directly over flame.
Michael Gebert is always on fire as editor of Fooditor.
Cover image: Pollo Express
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