Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 12:30 p.m.
The first time I ever saw buches--perhaps more properly known as pescuezos de pollo--was at the late, lamented Breed Street vendor fair in Boyle Heights, where the scent of frying chicken competed for olfactory primacy against enchiladas, pambazos, churros, and pit-roasted meat. I wasn't paying attention when Bill Esparza told me what they were. He said deep-fried chicken necks; I thought he said deep-fried chicken nuts, and I gave him the sort of look I usually reserve for Andrew Zimmern's television show.
We laughed the misunderstanding off, but I started noticing more and more trucks and stores selling "Pescuezos de Pollo Estilo Tijuana" throughout East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and Huntington Park. Fortunately, before I tried any of the imitators, I went straight to the source.
Were fried chicken necks invented in Tijuana? I'm sure it wasn't a tijuanense who first decided to deep-fry a neck, but it certainly was a Tijuana native who opened the first store dedicated to them. Pescuezos de pollo should be as identified with the city as molotes are with Oaxaca or panuchos with the Yucatán. Talk about buches in Tijuana and absolutely everyone in town will send you to one place.
To love buches--to truly love buches--you have to go to their spiritual home, which means spending some quality time in Tijuana's lovely red-light district, the Zona Norte, just two blocks from the imposing palisade that separates Mexico from the United States.
There, on Avenida Constitución just north of Art. 123 (one block west of the metal arch that announces your arrival south of the border), you'll find the two-blocks-from-copyright-infringement Kentucky Fried Buches, a long, narrow, harshly lit temple to fried chicken necks. There's almost nothing to the place; nearest the door is a five foot-long tank full of chicken necks frying in chicken fat--you know, schmaltz. There's a long counter with a bucket of salsa and some tortillas and plates, and tables with salt, napkins, and toothpicks. Bare bones, but you're here to eat. An order of 5 buches with tortillas and salsa costs 35 pesos--about $2.70--and is served at lightning-quick speed.
Buches, like other bony parts of the bird, are hard to eat. There's not much to them, and they're shot through with bones that don't come neatly apart. This is not a snack you eat cleanly. Do you flirt with blistered fingers and attempt to shred the skin and what little meat there is into tortillas, or do you eat caveman-style, stripping the skin off the neck with your teeth, and then sucking?
I always start out trying to pick the necks into the tortillas, but after one or two of these I get frustrated and resort to the latter; drag the neck through the salsa, then engage in a display of table manners so far removed from my raising that generations of white, northern European Protestant ancestors spin in their graves like Rolls-Royce axles. In my defense, it's midnight, I'm in Tijuana, and standing three feet away from a woman so tarted up you could lose a car key in her makeup.
All thoughts of table manners disappear as soon as the first bite is taken. The buches manage to concentrate everything that is good about fried chicken into a tiny package. Though each buche contains maybe an ounce or ounce and a half of meat, they're more satisfying than an entire bucket of their namesake's fried chicken. The grease that runs off the skin infuses the entire tortilla with chicken flavor. The salsa, a tomato-ey glop that resembles the chip dip served in Mexican-American restaurants (in looks, if not in flavor), is essential. The liquid from the tomatoes will run down your arms; accept this. The acid in the salsa cuts through the grease; the chile causes the taste to spread in your mouth; the tomatoes add a slight sweetness.
I've tried several of the imitators in Los Angeles; they fry in vegetable oil, and they don't serve enough for the chicken fat to leach out into and flavor the oil. There's no avoiding it; with one bite of a real Kentucky Fried Buche, you'll find your thoughts drifting to the Zona Norte and wondering how long before you can sneak back away from Revolución for a quick fix.
Kentucky Fried Buches, Ave. Constitución 670, Zona Norte, Tijuana, B.C.
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