South Side Eats: Charcoal Grilled Chicken at El Pollo Real
Editor's Note: Titus will be chiming in occasionally with food finds on the South Side. Of course, you may already know him from his blog, Smokin' Chokin' and Chowing with the King, where he's single handedly eaten at almost every restaurant in Chicagoland. (Slight exaggeration, but only sort of.)
Hey y'all, welcome back to the South Side crawl. I decided to put to use my smartphone food list, which I keep to mainly mark down taquerias and other Mexican-owned restaurants that intrigue me but don't have websites. A funny thing happened along the way, though—I passed by another place on my list and the smell of smoke was too much to resist. So I pulled an around the block maneuver, parked my car, and finally tried El Pollo Real in it's new digs at the corner of 31st street and Avers in the Little Village neighborhood.
I'd been tempted for a while to get my behind inside and see if their claim of "100% Estillo en Sinaloa-style grilled chicken" was accurate. Roadside stands serving this style of bird are common throughout Mexico. Lots of places serve grilled chicken these days but barely any do it over real charcoal. That's a key for me as far as finding the good stuff goes. The briquettes invoke the smoke flavor that makes grilled chicken good. Rub on what's always a healthy helping of ancho chili powder, cloves, cinnamon, and whatever else recipes call for after it's been marinating in juices (usually orange and lime) and we're eating the regional Mexican specialty of Sinaloa, it's namesake state. So do they do it the right here? Is there charcoal? Yes! and plenty of it!
I decided to ask if I could go in back to where I could see clouds of smoke; one of the guys tending to the birds was happy to show me a few restaurant-sized bags of Royal Oak charcoal, as well as the pit they use to get it glowing. The temperature back there was no joke, and you really gotta love a place that doesn't take any shortcuts. Each split chicken was placed on a spit which was shaped like a pitchfork allowing for the grilling and flipping of many birds all at once. Just like at Johnnie's Beef there are no grates between the fire and food, so the chickens are flipped a few times during cooking. Same goes for the knob onions, which have their own grill space to the left.
You can order in whole or half-birds and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but on Thursdays you get a free half-chicken with the purchase of a full combo ($14).
That full-bird combo comes with rice and your choice of charro beans or refried beans, a cup of pickled red onions, and one of two housemade salsas—one a traditional tomato-based one and the other a smoky chipotle. There are a few choices for add-on's, and tortillas ($.60 for a warm package) and the grilled knob onions are worth your dollar and change.
I was already almost positive I was going to like the chicken before I took my first bite, and I was right. I thought the bird was cooked perfectly and had the exact amount of smoke to make the outside flesh a little pink while being cooked just perfectly. Actually, if we wanna play Mr. Perfect I guess the skin could of been a little more crisp, but I was also taking out so maybe it got flimsy en route to my place of eating.
Lots of spots serve flat out bland chicken tacos, so I usually eat them when getting food from places like Pollo Real. I'll rip off the meat and put it into a tortilla spread with rice and beans, and throw in a couple knob onions and top it with some salsa and pickled onion. They can taste as good as they sound as long as the product being used is legit, which is the case over here.
So for less than $20 you can feed a family of six here on Thursday. Not surprisingly that's what many folks were doing as school had just gotten out and a few mothers stopped through, kids in tow, to grab orders to go. Easy to see why they like the place: succulent, smoky, spicy chicken? What's not to like?