Chicken and waffle cones
Who the #@%* was Marco Polo? As we here at the Alibi are all about education, let’s do a historical sneaky peak. The famed name belonged to a globe-trotting Venetian merchant who went to China, met Kublai Khan, wrote a book, got kidnapped, got released and retired while sitting on a proverbial pile of cash. Then, of course, he lent his name to a fun pool game. It is reputed that our boy returned to Venice from China and was going around to his friends and neighbors bragging about his travels, only to have few believe his seemingly tall tales.
That’s kind of how I felt when I heard that a former manager of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mark Harden, started a new restaurant specializing in really good chicken. Now, I won’t lie—I’ve had more than one bucket of KFC in my day, and I may have another. But making the jump from extra crispy to gourmet rotisserie chicken? I’d believe that only upon further investigation.
Finding the place was relatively easy after I figured out that this restaurant, Marco Pollo, was not the same as Marco Polo Market, a Middle Eastern specialty store on San Mateo. I followed my inner compass (stomach) to Montgomery, where I found the place comfortably nested next to Pelican’s. Both the outside and the interior had a distinctly chain-restaurant look, with bright banners, tables with glossy logos on them and a quasi-authentic salsa “cart” in the middle of the front dining room.
The dining area is huge with a front room, a quieter, booth-laden back area and a decent-sized patio. The counter is a beeline from the door, so you can’t miss it, but I was a tad confused about the separate counters for food and desserts. It was pointed out to me that the Marco Pollo counter was for ordering chicken, etc., and across the way was Galileo’s, where you order Italian custard, ices, etc. The catch is that you have to order and pay at each counter separately.
My dining companion and I spent a few minutes perusing the short menu, which was everything chicken. Under “Mexican favorites” there are chicken quesadillas, burritos, tacos and nachos, and on the “lighter” side there is a chicken bowl with rice and beans, a chicken salad sandwich on a croissant, and green chile chicken soup. The “chicken wings” section features flavors like classic hot, barbecue, sweet bourbon, lemon pepper and garlic parmesan. Wings here are divvied up by six, 10, 25 or 50 pieces ($2.99, $4.79, $11.69 and $23.69, respectively) and are cooked fresh to order.
Next up is the house specialty, charbroiled chicken, marinated in a “secret blend of herbs, spices and fruit juices.” The chicken is served à la carte or as a meal with side items like pinto beans, black beans, rice, fiesta coleslaw and sweet corn and zucchini. (Everything comes with tortillas and salsa bar.) We finally decided upon, you guessed it, the chicken. I ordered the four-piece meal with rice and the corn-zucchini blend ($6.99) and 10 wings of half lemon pepper and half garlic parmesan.
I’m a big fan of the salsa bar. Even though you technically have to buy something to gain access, it still feels like something delightful for free. This one had bowls of chopped jalapeños, lemon wedges, cilantro, pico de gallo and three freshly prepared salsa choices: The house salsa was hot, slightly sweet and tomatoey, the chipotle had a roasted, smoky tomato flavor, and my personal fave, the avocado, was like a hot, creamy liquid guacamole.
Several chip chomps and many napkins later, the main course was delivered with two little plastic packets of tortillas on the side. The lemon pepper wings were luscious. These little flappers were fat, moist and seasoned with salty lemon and coarse black pepper. The garlic parmesan wings were just as moist and meaty, but needed a bit more garlic to balance the wealth of grated cheese. My rice was a nice caramel color with bits of vegetable, and had a pleasant but rather ambiguous flavor. I sure did love that darned corn, though. This stuff was sweet as sugar with tons of pepper and bites of zucchini. The chicken had a beautiful crispy skin, and was cooked very well, as represented by the grills lining the back kitchen, covered with pieces of fowl in various stages of doneness.
But I like a more aggressive marinade than what I tasted. If the late Johnnie Cochran were there, he’d have said, “Don’t be afraid to marinate.” My dining companion astutely quipped that they “must be catering to the California Mexican food crowd—they’re afraid of heat.” I would have liked to taste an assertive spice and fruit juice thing, but the chicken is quite above average the way it is, and it sure beats a bucket. By way of comparison, I’d say that a family meal at Marco Pollo costs roughly the same as a similarly sized meal at KFC, you get all-you-can-eat chips and it’s a helluva lot better for you than all that processed, deep-fried stuff.
After supper I had a couple of heavenly treats from Galileo’s. Treat No. 1 was called a “concrete” ($3.25), like a super-thick shake with mix-ins, made with vanilla Italian custard and bananas. Treat No. 2 was a handmade waffle cone filled with custard and crushed oreos ($2.19). The waffle cone was buttery and a little soft and the custard was rich, rich, rich.
Harden, aka “the chicken man” to his staff, gets his bragging rights for this one. And if his expansion plans take off, he might warrant a spot in the history books someday, just like the other Marco.