As election time draws near, I am still weighing my options, still going over what I like and dislike about each candidate, mulling over their pros and cons, in a seemingly nonstop battle with myself.
I am at war with me; I cannot decide who to vote for.
They each have their own annoying nuances, don’t they, their reasons to not vote for them. They also have their upsides, though — experience, proven track records, confidence and character.
I am, of course, talking about pieces of chicken.
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In the spirit of DFW.com’s recent coast-against-coast burger throwdown, we’ve come up with a similar cuisine death match, this time featuring fast-casual chicken restaurants, of which there are many in Fort Worth and the surrounding areas, and more and more are coming.
No new turf for me. I’ve been on the chicken beat ever since I wrote a cover story for the Star-Telegram’s K Magazine on the fast-food chicken boom in the Keller area, from which East Coast superstar Pollo Tropical emerged the victor.
This particular match-up zeroes in on three chains — one from the East Coast, one from the West Coast, plus a Texas fave — that specialize in Mexican/Caribbean-style grilled chicken. Long a staple of Mexican cuisine, this type of chicken is now finding an audience beyond food trucks and tiny mom-and-pop restaurants.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, my wife and I embarked on this journey of journeys: to find the best among the best of these turkeys — sorry, I totally mean “chickens,” really, honestly. I would never try to turn this story into a metaphor for next week’s debacle, I mean election. I apologize, I don’t know why my computer keeps typing stuff like that.
El Pollo Loco
A week ago, I had no idea who they were and now I’m calling my real-estate agent to see if there’s a house right next door to them available for an ASAP move-in. Yeah, this place rocks.
The company’s history dates back to 1980, when the first location opened in Los Angeles. Now there are more than 400 locations in various parts of the country. A half-dozen are planned for Dallas/Fort Worth, including the recently opened store in Bedford (there’s also a location in north Fort Worth).
Part of El Pollo Loco’s appeal may be the show: In the same way you can watch people flip burgers at certain burger joints, you can watch the cooks here grill chickens, on mammoth grills fired up right before your eyes. Every once in a while, during our visit, flames would shoot up from the grill and everyone watching would let out a collective “ohhhhhhh.”
To keep this fair, we ordered the same thing at each restaurant: a half-chicken with rice and beans, a drink and some sort of dessert.
Only a few minutes passed between ordering and getting our food at El Pollo Loco, and the place was crowded; they were quick despite being jammed.
Before us sat a half-chicken — torn into four parts, a leg, breast, thigh and wing — still smoking from the grill, its skin glistening with marinade. The restaurant takes a lot of pride in that marinade and it only took a bite or two to see why: It was an addicting combo of citrus and smoke; we got another half-chicken to-go.
The skin had a lot of crispy spots, which we loved, but we were afraid dry chicken may lay beneath. But it was moist through and through. You know, I can’t remember the names of the other two places I’m supposed to visit now.
For sides, we stuck to rice and beans, although mashed potatoes, corn, french fries and coleslaw were also available. Mexican rice was basic, standard fare. Pinto beans were good — soupy and salty.
Two things we didn’t like: the corn tortillas, which were soggy, cold and, in the case of two of them, falling apart; and an avocado salsa in which neither of us could taste avocado. We did like the chunky, spicy tomato salsa.
Some locations offer aguas frescas such as horchata — sweetened rice water — but this one did not. Our sweet tea was A-OK.
Dessert consisted of sweet, rich rice pudding, which a manager said is made on site. It certainly tasted like it.
All in all, an excellent showing for this newcomer.
A few weeks ago, Florida-born Pollo Tropical, which takes a more Caribbean-inspired approach to its food and decor, made a dire announcement: The 28-year-old chain will close several locations. After my visit to the North Richland Hills store, I kinda understand why.
Like Pollo Loco, Pollo Tropical specializes in citrus-marinated, flame-grilled chicken, but our half-chicken wasn’t fresh off the grill. Matter of fact, it came from a pile of chickens stacked on top of the grill, having already been cooked.
Warmed up before being served to us, the chicken was tender but devoid of the sweet and spicy flavor that would make me fall in love with it. I thought it was a little unusual that the skin was as juicy as the meat (and just as short on flavor); there was virtually no difference in the texture (or taste) of the two.
Sides and sauces were Pollo Tropical’s strengths. Firm black beans and long-grain white rice were a cut above the Tex-Mex norm. You have a choice of another side, and I can’t recommend enough the boiled yuca, dipped in a house-made garlic sauce. So, so cool and unusual to see yuca on the menu at a fast-food joint.
I’ve had each of Pollo Tropical’s eight sauces, and I have yet to find a dud, although I do have faves, among them the sweet and fiery guava barbecue sauce, a super spicy hot sauce and the lime-infused cilantro-garlic sauce.
Extras included a house-made fruit punch that was a little watery and an excellent piece of tres leches cake, dense and sweet, as it should be.
Just about everything was good, except for the chicken. Onward we marched.
There are very few things in life, my life at least, more exciting than unwrapping an order of charcoal-grilled chicken at this Texas chain. First the smell of herbs and spices hits you, then the heat from the meat, then the taste of charcoal, tender meat and smoke.
It’s messy, it’s primal, it’s the best way in the world to eat chicken — fryers be damned.
Pollo Regio began in Austin in the mid-’90s, when founder Juan Basualda began serving grilled and marinated chicken out of a trailer on Riverside Drive. Now it’s Texas’ most popular hometown-team grilled chicken chain, with more than 40 locations in the state.
As we often do, we ended our day here, at the Camp Bowie location in Fort Worth, getting our usual order of half-chicken, more than enough food for two. We’d been eating chicken all day but this was sort of the crown jewel, the Fred’s of grilled chicken places.
The chicken did not come straight off the grill. Instead, it came out of a warmer, as it had been cooked earlier in the day, then kept hot. I used to be trepidatious about what I’d wind up with, but the chicken has always maintained its flavor, juiciness and texture, and this time was no different.
Tattooed with grill marks, the chicken was well cooked, not overly juicy and not dry either. The marinade is what made it so good; ingredients are kept secret, but you could taste traces of lime, garlic and black pepper, topped off with a serious blast of smoke.
I love that they typically include half of a grilled onion. We got short-changed on the onion, though, winding up with only about a quarter of an onion. Accompanying corn tortillas were also a letdown, too soft and crumbly to hold the chicken.
I’ve never been impressed with the by-the-numbers rice but the charro beans — spiked with ground beef, bacon and jalapeños — were spot-on.
A half-dozen salsas were available, but the only one that matters is a creamy yet fiery avocado sauce that sneaks up on you, knocking you out just when you think you’re in the clear.
The restaurant was out of its churro desserts but the sweetness from the horchata compensated, probably too much so. As is often the case with machine-made horchata, it was just too sweet.
Multiple locations (judging took place at 7108 Camp Bowie Blvd. W., Fort Worth, 817-377-0208). www.elpolloregio.net.
The results are in
This battle was no landslide, no easy decision to make, no clear-cut, obvious choice. If I could vote for two of the places as the best, I would. Wonder if I could rig this thing into making them both win.
Alas, I must vote for someone, so vote I shall: El Pollo Loco had a slight leg up on El Pollo Regio. There was a tiny bit more flavor and personality in Loco’s chicken, just enough to get it elected as the best.
Wow, that’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Now I can start thinking about that other election we have coming up, you know, the really important one.
Yes, yes, yes, I’m very much ready to cast my vote for … my favorite taco. When do the polls open?