Photo by Nadia AfghaniMy mother visited Super Pollo in Costa Mesa for the first time a couple of weeks ago and immediately started mentioning Tijuana. She said the parking, which consists of three cracked-asphalt stalls on what, legally, should be a sidewalk, was on par with what's found in that grimy border metropolis. She sniggered that the restaurant's ardent-yellow walls should remain a Baja architectural curio. And all those stickers of long-abandoned bands adorning the door? "¡Pura cochinada!" she yelled to my siblings and me as we hunkered outside the shop with two roasted chickens, canisters of plump rice and steaming corn tortillas. A man worked on his busted truck just feet from our bench. "Pure filth!"
But then Mami knifed through our order, effortlessly tearing off meat, tossing some chunks into the quite-thick tortillas, and splashing in a bit of a brick-red salsa that we kids whispered afterward was better than anything she ever ground. The chicken's gnarled, shining skin featured hefty garlic crescents wedged within its wrinkles. A lemon-butter seasoning seeped through the already-tender bird and pooled onto our cardboard dishes. Time for lunch.
Afterward, we sipped on the frothy drink that's gospel for Mexican flame-broiled chicken connoisseurs, Orange Bang! I made a stab for another wing. Mom slapped. "Save that for your dad!" she scolded. "I want to show him something that finally beats that chicken he always drives down to Tijuana for." She continued chewing on her impromptu taco, satisfied.
Super Pollo is a Costa Mesa institution, a bit of quirky comfort wedged between a Kragen Auto Parts and a Tower Records. OC Weekly's premier issue sung its praises as "five bucks of heaven on a plate," the same combo we Arellanos gnawed through for just 50 cents more nine years later. But Super Pollo is one of those delicious eateries you assume will survive the H-Bomb that appears to have already hit it, so you rarely haunt it. Until I took my mother, I hadn't chomped within its tiny lot since attending Orange Coast College in the late 1990s. Thankfully, absolutely nothing has changed since those starving-student days. In addition to the wonderful chicken combos, they still fold one of the tastier non-Anaheim carne asada burritos in the county: beef mixed with creamy guacamole, lard-free refried beans and tangy pico de gallo. Everything else—sturdy nachos, behemoth fish tacos and a largely surfer clientele—remains unspoiled and welcoming, like home.
The only bad thing about Super Pollo is the mural outside, featuring the restaurant's caped-and-spandexed mascot surfing the pristine Pacific, a fresco so detailed the chicken casts a shadow onto the wave. "Enjoy Me," she commands visitors—or would if the umbrellas that provide shade didn't block this marvel.
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"More people should see that painting—it's funny!" my mom said with a chuckle as she pilfered a stalk of yerba buena from a plant next to the door. Just like Tijuana.
SUPER POLLO, 1731 SUPERIOR AVE., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-7574.