El Pollo Real
Real Colombian cuisine
With a name like El Pollo Real (which astute readers will recognize as meaning The Royal Chicken), you’d expect chicken to reign supreme. Instead, the restaurant is more democracy than monarchy, where chicken—crispy, juicy, falling-off-the-bone tender and full of smoky charbroiled flavor—is represented without dominating the menu.
In fact, this boxy strip mall gem on Louisiana is actually a Colombian restaurant with a solid lineup of Mexican dishes to boot, as well as the chicken.
The large, square interior is decorated with depictions of chickens and roosters, glitzy sombreros, a painted street scene from some Latin American highlands, pottery, and a painting of a woman making arepas—which are on the menu. The TV is tuned to a Spanish-language station.
Mexican (or New Mexican, depending on your definition) dishes like burritos, enchiladas, tacos and tamales are well-prepared, and most come with the option of red (standard, good) or green (jalapeño-based, heavy on the cilantro and lime and very good, although purists may scoff). Barbacoa, chicharrón and all your favorite fatty fillings are also available.
The Colombian side of the menu is where El Pollo Real's kitchen shows its most interesting and refined chops. An appetizer of blood sausage, or morcilla, imported from Colombia comes with pieces of fried plantain that are pounded and fried to resemble flowers. The morcilla is stuffed with rice, meat, plenty of solid pig blood, onions and a hint of mint.
Augmented with chile, eggs, cilantro, garlic and plantains, this large and busy pile successfully unites many voices into a well-tuned chorus.
Ropa vieja consists of shredded flank steak in a tomato-based Creole sauce. Even though its name means “old clothes” due to its rag-like presentation and origins in being made with leftovers, it's a culinary masterpiece that's not to be underestimated. Augmented with chile, eggs, cilantro, garlic and plantains, this large and busy pile successfully unites many voices into a well-tuned chorus. It’s my favorite dish on the menu, and it mixes well with the aji, a tomato-free Colombian salsa of jalapeño, onion, cilantro and lime.
A spectacular maracujá (passion fruit) treads an exquisite line between tart and sweet.
Similar to ropa vieja, sobrebarriga en salsa criolla earns a spot at the table as well. Made with flank steak that’s left whole rather than shredded (sobrebarriga means “above the belly,” the name of the flank steak cut), the huge piece of beef is topped with more of that delicious Creole sauce and yucca. It’s certainly the more photogenic of the two dishes—a big piece of meat instead of a big pile of mush.
El Pollo Real is just a little over a year old, and it's still finding its footing. Each of my three visits showed improvement, especially in the vegetable department. On one visit, the veggies in a salad with chicken were tired, if not completely exhausted. But the salads had gone through an extreme makeover by my next meal: microgreens, spinach and radishes in a delicate oil-and-lemon dressing. Though small in portion, the guacamole is bright green and feisty. The salsa was different every time I ordered it—sometimes hot, sometimes mild, sometimes too salty. But the upside is that it’s obviously homemade—except perhaps for the salsa blanca accompanying the chicken salad, which is actually ranch dressing. You also might want to avoid the from-the-bag fries. Sides of beans, however, are expertly prepared: whole, soft and soupy with flecks of jalapeño and good supporting flavors.
Beverages are a strong suit at El Pollo Real. The jugos are made with tropical fruit pulps. A spectacular maracujá (passion fruit) treads an exquisite line between tart and sweet. Unless you request otherwise, the guava is blended with milk “to add flavor,” explains the waitress. Other exotic juices include lulo, guanábana and mamey. There’s also homemade horchata on the menu, though it’s been out when I’ve tried to order it.
While a few potholes and inconsistencies remain on the menu of this young place, steady improvement and a refreshing lineup of Colombian dishes indicate El Pollo Real has a bright future.