Tucked next to familiar names like Applebee's, Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Walmart on West St. Paul’s South Robert Street is an important restaurant. It looks like just another slick fast food chain with a drive-thru window, fountain drinks, and the low, low prices, but that’s where the comparisons basically end.
Past the cartoon chicken in a cowboy hat in Pollo Campero's signage is a subtle and fresh chicken feast. The chain was founded 46 years ago in Guatemala by the Guiterrez family, and the family-owned company has restaurants across the U.S. and in many Spanish speaking-countries.
The delicious joy of Latin-style chicken – grilled or fried, plus rice, beans, fried yucca, plantains, and a cache of glorious hot sauces – is rare in the Twin Cities. Combined with its economic and healthy bent, it’s arguably the perfect meal. Want more? Fresh hot corn tortillas come gratis.
There will be decisions. The first and most agonizing: grilled or fried? The grilled chicken is moist as dew, with a citrus-herb flavor fresh as your garden in July. But the fried is as good as fried chicken gets. Breaking Bad's fictitious restaurant Los Pollo Hermanos was only a front, but “zesty chicken, slow-cooked to perfection” is the real-deal here.
That zest seems to come from a bit of red-tinged chile spice, but the chicken itself is not spicy. The crunch on the batter is lacy, and crunches like tissue paper. The advertising purports it to be hand-breaded on site (a slow-food touch not found at next door’s KFC) and it's as addictive as Walter White’s own chemistry.
Can't decide? Go off-menu, and get half and half grilled and fried. Or, get as fussy as you want. In addition to being delicious, Pollo Campero is accommodating.
For chicken in other formats, check out the fat empanadas in various recipes like buffalo and verde. Or get it in “bowl” form, with a base of rice and beans and finished thoughtfully with the green sauce. Your kid will appreciate the “bites,” boneless and 100 percent white meat.
This is some of the best yucca in town, light and crisp as French fries without a hint of grease and served with chipotle crema. Or street corn salad, on a bed of field greens and pretty, halved cherry tomatoes.
Also see the fresh salsa bar with hand-diced pico de gallo, green salsa, limes, and onions. Then there's the Campero Rice, striated with roasted poblano (known as “rajas”) beans, chorizo, and jalapeños. “Don’t worry – they’re not spicy,” reads the MN-friendly description.
And if you do nothing else, ask for extra portions of the creamy green sauce made with cilantro, lime, and crema, and put it on everything.
The price of all of this goodness is as happy-making as the rest of it. Consider the fact that an eight-piece meal with two large sides, beverages, and the aforementioned complimentary tortillas lands on the table for just under $30, and 3-4 people are living large for well under a 10 spot.
The soda fountain, florescent lights, and vinyl booths scream fast food, but the fresh Horchata, Jamaica and Tamarindo (three popular Latin street beverages), actual plates, and bussed tables yell “real restaurant.”
The intersection makes Pollo Campero the perfect place for a family gathering featuring fussy eaters, children, foodies, and/or the diet-conscious. Even gluten-eschewing folk. What other fast food restaurant can you point to and say that this unwieldy bunch will leave happy?
True fact: A big-name Twin Cities chef uses Pollo Campero's lone Minnesota location to discuss his business dealings over his favorite chicken, and he has begged me to never publicize this place. When you see him, tell him hello from me.