Twirly Birds at Don Pollo
I must be honest: As a Mexican, I think we do chicken best al carbón—slathered in citrus juices and patted down with spices, then left to the mercies of ceaseless flames on an open grill, the way they do it at the Surfin’ Chicken and El Pollo Fino. Armenians and Peruvians perfected rotisserie-style hen; when Mexicans do pollo rostizado, we don’t add garlic sauce like the Armenians or rub it with soy sauce à la the Peruvians. We really don’t do much other than let the bird rotate until its skin crackles with melted fat and assumes the consistency of chicharrones—and that’s about it. Delicious when done right, sure, but nowhere near the hard-charging flavors of al carbón.
All this said, sometimes the Mexican palate wants pollo rostizado. The options are understandably limited in Orange County, and the forlorn Don Pollo is near the top. This is the epitome of a one-note place—chicken tacos, burritos, tostadas, quesadillas, salads, mulitas, all chicken. Even the rice—a blatant, delicious ripoff of the Juan Pollo franchise’s star side dish, in which grains get plumped and yellow with chicken broth and stray strips of dark meat thread their way through the cylindrical pyramid of a serving. Filling as all those options may be, the only real choices are the obscenely affordable numbered deals—thimbles of pinto beans, chicken rice, pico de gallo (tame or spicy, per request), choice of corn or flour tortillas, and chicken pieces starting with a wing and breast and multiplying in twos.
Don Pollo’s chicken meat is juicy, easily sliding off the bone—it’s so tender you might be tempted to stick a straw in it and try to slurp it up. And then there’s the skin, shiny with the grease that seeped up from the fat lurking just beneath it, taut over drumstick, wing or breast. You can hear a snap upon biting into it, feel shards sprinkle across your mouth. The best parts of the bird are the drumsticks and wings, where the tips of each nub transform into obsidian veins on the bone; you’ll find yourself sucking on them long after the last part of the chicken is digested.
The place can improve—maybe a better rub on the skin, definitely a nicer eating establishment. But pollo rostizado in the Mexican dining scene is working-class food, and the parade of laborers throughout the day at Don Pollo attests to this fact. Sometimes, the stomach wants simple, fatty, gloriously crunchy chicken skin, and that’s perfectly fine. And muy bueno.
Don Pollo, 2623 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-4902.
This column appeared in print as "Twirly Birds."
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