The realm of Latino fast food cuisine has long lacked authentic and fresh flavors, resulting in the passing of such abominations as the Doritos Taco Loco for “Mexican food.” Fortunately, Pollo Campero offers delicious Latin American dishes, but not at dollar menu prices.
Pollo Campero is relatively new to the US (its first restaurant here opened in 2002), but the chain has enjoyed global success since its founding in 1971 in Guatemala. The restaurant is popular across Latin America, and now has locations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as well as in North America. In some countries, Pollo Campero is something of an icon. In fact, when word spread that several new franchises were opening in the Houston area, a colleague remarked to me that her husband had grown to love the chain while working for a time in Mexico, and my mother reminisced about sending my father for Pollo Campero runs.
The chain’s Latin American roots are evident upon pulling up to the restaurant, which is decorated in vivid oranges and greens with stylized chicken motifs evocative of Mayan pictographs. Compared to the mustard yellow and ketchup red of McDonald’s, Pollo Campero feels modern and sleek. Spanish language music plays over the speaker system, and the staff is very friendly, greeting us warmly upon entrance to ask if we’ve been there before and coming by our table periodically to check on us. That we even dine-in at all is a testament to the thoughtful planning of the restaurant’s designers: the franchise is fresh, clean and doesn’t smell like fryer grease.
The restaurant specializes in chicken, and they do it well. The chicken tomatillo taco was flavorful, with moist shredded chicken and authentic queso fresco and salsa sprinkled on top. But I preferred the crispy chicken taco, which layered mango “coleslaw” (pickled crispy cabbage) and avocado on top of chicken strips. You have the option of flour or corn tortillas, but I recommend the corn as the flour tortillas were dry; better fast-food flour tortillas can be found at Taco Cabana. Though delicious, the tacos were a bit small for the price.
There are several combinations of rotisserie chicken available. My Peruvian husband typically orders his plate with platano and rice and beans on the side, and he raves that the meal tastes just like what they eat at home. For the health conscious, there are a few salad options. I tried the Mango Chicken and enjoyed the tomato lime dressing and pieces of mango accompanying the crispy chicken pieces; the plate was large enough that I ate my fill and still had enough for a light dinner of leftovers.
A variety of sides is available in addition to the aforementioned platano, cole slaw and traditional rice and beans. The watermelon and cucumber salad was refreshing, although not everyone in our party enjoyed the mint flavor. However, the stand-out accoutrement is the array of salsas. There’s a suitable spice-level available whatever your palate, including an oddly sweet (but delicious) tamarindo version. Wash them down with a delicious horchata or other agua fresco, and you have the makings of a satisfying meal.
Pollo Campero has a lot going for it – comfortable dining environment and a delicious array of foods that stand out from the fast-food crowd. The one downside is price. Diners expecting fast-food prices from this chain will probably be disappointed at the perceived cost-value; a better comparison would be to “fast-casual” restaurants, such as Panera or Café Express. But if you’re looking to meet a craving for Latin American foods on some night where you don’t have the druthers to cook dinner, Pollo Campero might be your best shot.