Rotisserie League: Chicken winners

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.07.12
You get what you pay for. True. You don’t get what you don’t pay for. Also true. In this Mexican chicken standoff, the winner and the loser proved both points.
The clear winner among the six chickens in this Rotisserie League series was the one that inspired it in the first place: The $24 bird from the fancy new concession stand called Fresa’s. That puts me in the itchy position of justifying a chicken dinner that’s almost twice the going rate for Mexican-style charcoal chicken. I’ll try. The loser — El Pollo Rico — puts me in the equally awkward position of slamming a little place with cheap chicken and a fiercely loyal following, a following that can’t punctuate or spell worth a damn, except for the four-letter words.
The second-place chicken from El Pollo Regio defended the honor of humble chicken stands. Third and fourth place went to Julio’s Cafe and Inka Chicken for their rotisserie twists on the formula. H-E-B came in fifth for its gas-grilled grocery-store version.
1. Fresa’s. Chicken in a bag isn’t pretty, so I carried a cutting board with me for photos. The Fresa’s bird filled barely a third of the board, giving the rice and beans and tortillas room to stretch. Most of the other birds hogged that board, pushing the sides to the edges. So I’m looking for ways to rationalize paying $24 for the littlest chicken. Fair to say two people could make a dinner out of it. Maybe a stretch to say it’d satisfy three. $8 per person sounds reasonable; $12 lands outside the value zone. OK, OK. $24 is too much to pay for this kind of food, the same way $34 was too much to pay for a foie gras cheeseburger at Jeffrey’s. But you’re getting the very best version of charcoal chicken, the ne-pimp-ultra version of a cheeseburger. Here’s the “get what you pay for” part: Every juicy bite of chicken carried flavor DNA from the dusky achiote rub and the deep-breathing charcoal. It was cooked properly, chopped with care and served with the best — and most — Spanish rice with carrots and peas and charro beans heavy with meat and onion. Fresa’s presses its own corn tortillas, and the soft texture and masa flavor make them more than just something to scoop with. 915 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-428-5077, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. (updated 07.11.12) (above left)
2. El Pollo Regio. The best ingredients make good food. But good cooks make magic even with humble ones. Regio shows that the $12.93 version of pollos asados al carbon works almost as well as the high end. On the downside, the flavor lies mostly in the skin, there’s less rice and fewer beans and the tortillas are mass-market quality. But it’s a decent-sized bird, cooked with care over the charcoal stacked outside in 30-pound bags. And the beans are packed with onion and jalapeño and bacon — a meal by themselves. 1725 Ohlen Road. No phone or working website. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. (above right)
3. Julio’s Cafe. It’s hard to do a bird-to-bird comparison at Julio’s, because it’s spit-roasted rather than charcoal-grilled, and a half-chicken is as much as you can get on a combo plate ($9.50). But with rice, beans, warm tortillas and a zesty red salsa, Julio’s chicken belongs in any conversation about Mexican-style chicken in Austin. They were doing rotisserie chicken in Clarksville, then in Hyde Park before every grocery store and Costco started carrying them. And for a reason: The soft, juicy, herbal character of home cooking with an atmosphere to match. 4230 Duval St. 512-452-1040, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Note: Roasted chicken isn’t available on Sunday. (above left)
4. Inka Chicken. A friend who’s traveled in Peru says the “pollo a la brasa” there is outstanding. I’ve never been to Peru, but I like how Inka Chicken has transported the style to Austin in a former Long John Silver’s building. The chicken spools on a rotisserie like a Ferris wheel above an open charcoal pit, filling both the chicken and the restaurant with back-patio smoke. A two-day marinade and a dry spice rub give this chicken a deep herbal character, chopped into four massive pieces at $16.99 for a full bird with two sides. Make sure the twangy fried plantains make up one of those sides. 1707 Wells Branch Parkway. 512-252-2222, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. (above right)
5. H-E-B Mi Tienda. The least expensive of the full pollo asado dinners, the “Flaming Bird” from H-E-B’s “Mi Tienda” project is just $9 for a whole chicken with rice, beans, grilled onions and jalapeños and corn tortillas made in the store’s tortilleria. The chicken is butterflied and grilled over gas flames, creating a kind of spread-eagle rotisserie chicken, a soft suburban bird rather than the tougher, crustier chicken of the streets. 9414 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-835-5400, 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. (above left)
6. El Pollo Rico. The people who love El Pollo Rico really love it. And thanks to all of you who’ve written me to say so. Enjoy your stomach cramps. Even if a whole chicken dinner is just $13.39 in an air-conditioned dining room, there’s no excuse for a store this messy. For dried-up chicken sloppily chopped and full of bone fragments cooked on such a sooty grill. For salsa going bad in a room-temperature condiment bar. For the rubbery mystery meat in the beans. And for messing with my memory of El Pollo Rico as a place I’ve liked in the past, especially at their cookout-style booth at the rodeo. 1945 E. Oltorf St. 512-444-7426, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. (above right)
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)