Rotisserie League: Fresa's

 
 
Whether it’s grilled, roasted or rotisseried, Austin’s had cheap Mexican-style chicken for years. Now a new place called Fresa’s sells a $24 version. This calls for a six-round showdown. Let the feathers fall where they may.
 
Round 1: Fresa’s
915 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-428-5077, www.fresaschicken.com.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. (updated 07.11.12)
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.25.12
 
First came barbecue, then an oyster bar, then Vietnamese and now charcoal-grilled chicken. Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman Jr. have made a business of putting high-test spins on modest forms. Will the formula that worked for Lamberts, Perla’s and Elizabeth Street Cafe work for Mexican charcoal-grilled chicken? Fresa’s is betting that pastured chickens from Peeler Farms in Floresville southeast of San Antonio will carry the $24 pricetag for a chicken dinner from a place that has a drive-through and walk-up window but no tables. They might also be betting people don’t know “fresa” does double duty in Spanish as the word for “strawberry” and as a term used to sneer at preppies and hipsters. You know, the folks who don’t mind paying $24 for chicken in a bag.
 
That’s it for poking fun at Fresa’s prices. Time to try the chicken and see how it rates against other forms of Mexican-style chicken in town. The six-part Rotisserie League series starts today, and when I’ve written up all six, I’ll follow with head-to-head ratings.
 
What you get: A whole chicken dinner is $24 with big soup cups of charro beans and Mexican rice, grilled onions, a grilled jalapeño, small cups of red and green salsas and eight corn tortillas. A half-chicken combo is $14. A chicken dinner at Fresa’s comes one of two ways: citrus-achiote style with Mexican rice and charro beans or oregano-cracked pepper style with jasmine rice and black beans. This report covers the achiote-citrus combo.
 
The takeaway: Achiote is Mexico’s answer to India’s garam masala, a catch-all spice blend. Mexico’s version starts with blood-red annato seeds and tends to embrace garlic, cumin, coriander and black pepper and might fold in cloves and oregano. Whatever the specific blend, it tends to marry well with orange or other citrus fruits. Fresa’s achiote-citrus chicken is a complex expression of that blend, like each of the six pieces had been dipped in a hot cup of spiced orange tea. The spice and the charcoal heat give the skin a St. Tropez tan, deep chestnut with glimmers of orange. The flavor’s more than skin-deep, meaning this chicken goes beyond the grilled-chicken maxim that once the skin’s gone, so’s the fun. Even on the larger knotty cuts like the combined wing and breast, the meat is moist from bone to bite. Don’t get me wrong about the size. This is, in the words of Austin taco blogger Mando Rayo on Twitter, a “tiny organic sheeken.” But it’s as muscled as an Olympic gymnast and every bit as kinetic. Something that comes in handy when your floor routine happens on a fully-fired grill.
 
Every side dish works hard, especially the charro beans in a rich liquor fortified with meat that might be pork, might be brisket and in my imagination could be pulled from the pits at Lamberts. Fresa’s takes its corn tortillas seriously enough to make them from scratch. Their texture carries ripped chicken with ease, and their flavor adds its masa measure to creamy green salsa with stealth heat or a red with sweetness, herb and a grilled character of its own.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 
ROTISSERIE LEAGUE
 Coming next: El Pollo Rico