(Photo: Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY)
The scene: A line outside a lunch joint is always a good sign, and it is even better if the line forms before the place opens. (It’s better yet if there are several police officers and construction workers waiting, because working in the neighborhood, they eat lunch every day, know all the options and appreciate hearty value.) So when we queue up by grabbing a seat on a bench outside Pollos Asados Los Norteños, I feel pretty good about what is going to follow, and it doesn’t hurt that all my food-loving contacts in San Antonio have unanimously called this the city’s finest example of pollos al carbon, a specialty of Monterrey and northern Mexico (hence the eatery’s name) where roadside joints cooking marinated chickens over fire are common.
“It’s a great choice to visit, and great that we still have a place like that on the south side,” says Jason Dady, a famous local chef and owner of several restaurants including Two Bros BBQ Market, and runner up on the past season of Iron Chef Gauntlet. He was right.
The place screams dive, a cinder block building painted mustard yellow with bars over all the windows and a front “patio” waiting area that is really just part of the parking lot portioned off by the mismatched benches that we wait on in anticipation of the 11 a.m. opening. The important part of Pollos Asados is the freestanding little glass-walled hut in front of the main building, next to the waiting area. It looks like a highway toll booth flanked by pallets stacked high with bags of 100% mesquite hardwood charcoal, and is the heart and soul of the operation, containing the grill where all the chicken is cooked. You can see this and smell this while you wait, and it fuels your appetite. Locals say that on a clear day you can see the column of smoke from the nearby highway and get to the eatery by sight, but earlier this year the city forced owner Frank Garcia to close temporarily and install an expensive high-tech air scrubber atop the steel chimney, so these days you may have to use the actual address.
Garcia started with a trailer and cooked out of it for three years before opening this fairly large and always jam-packed brick and mortar location about seven years ago. The interior is simple and homey, to put it mildly, with exposed cinder block and corrugated metal, and red plastic checkered tablecloths. The food is served in plastic baskets on plastic plates with plastic silverware and oversized foam cups for the ever-present sweet tea. Ceiling fans whir, soccer is often on a couple of TVs, and the staff is friendly — it has a family feel like eating at someone’s backyard party. In less than a decade, it has become what the San Antonio Current called “chicken with a cult following,” and Texas Monthly’s famed barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn suggests in his glowing review that diners “get another half chicken to go. Otherwise, like me, you’ll regret not having more when you get home.”
Reason to visit: Chicken, grilled beef, sausage with cheese
The food: Pollos al carbon is made by marinating whole chickens, which are spatchcocked, or butterflied, by removing the backbone and flattening the whole bird into a single layer of near equal thickness, then grilling them over an open fire. This combines the best of both worlds — the juiciness and flavor that only comes from cooking a whole bird with the bones, and the perfect evenness of cooking you get with individual pieces. The classic marinade mixes ground pepper or pepper paste with citrus juice(s), and each cook including Garcia has his or her own secret recipe. Here the well-seasoned chicken is grilled over mesquite coal, which burns at a high temperature with a lot of smoke, and is served charred and slightly blackened, but far from burnt — in fact it is cooked perfectly, and it is delicious. It is also dirt cheap.
The standard dish is a family-style platter called El Sabor Autentico del Norte, or the authentic flavor of the North, and is available with either a half or whole chicken. The juicy, flavorful chicken is served along with corn tortillas, rice, pico de gallo (a chunky chopped tomato and onion salsa), a wedge of lime, a charred single hot pepper cooked on the same grill, and the big surprise, a seemingly plain half onion grilled until charred that somehow has been transformed into a deep vessel of flavor. You can eat your chicken on the bone with you hands or fork and knife, but many patrons cut pieces and roll their own stuffed tortillas with chicken and accoutrements, for which the onion is essential. The very green house-made hot sauce, a bottle of which sits on every table, comes from a secret Garcia family recipe, though Frank conceded that despite frequent guesses to the contrary, the guacamole-colored sauce contains no avocado. It’s spicy, but not crazy spicy, and a perfect complement to the chicken, especially the less flavorful white meat.
The only option on the ludicrously priced platters ($7.60 half or $12.99 whole, feeding two to three or four to six people, respectively) is a side of richly bacon-infused charro beans for a buck and a half, pretty much a mandatory addition.
Some 800 chickens are sold daily and there are other options, including several parrilladas platters, meaning grilled beef, available as fajitas (thin and tender), brochettas (chunk wrapped in bacon then chopped), sirloin (thick slices) or asada (thin and flat). Fajitas are the most popular, but our waitress insists that the most authentic style is brochetta toped with cheese, so of course we get that. The result is another crazy value, a mound of smoky grilled beef and bacon, onions, peppers and cheese with tortillas, pico de gallo and charro beans (included this time), which could feed a small army. The parrilladas are served by the half-pound of meat (around 10 bucks) or pound ($20) and also are family-style feasts. Everyone leaving the restaurant, including us, carries doggie bags even if they did not follow Vaughn’s advice.
Grilled burgers are also available, though that seems superfluous, and one side worth investigation is the salchicha asado, a disconcertingly pink sausage grilled, split and topped with cheese that tastes better than it looks — this is Dady’s favorite. “You have to have the cheese-stuffed sausage thing, it’s incredible,” he says.
While Garcia’s family does trace its roots to the northern part of Mexico where the cuisine comes from, he honed his restaurant skills in management for the upscale Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain before opening his own place, and credits his success to lessons learned earlier in the industry. “We are all about quality of food, consistency and service — and I’m always here.” Hard to argue with his logic or results.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but if you want the best chicken in San Antonio, with Latin flair, this is the place.
Rating: Yum-Plus! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 4642 Rigsby Avenue, San Antonio, TX; 210-648-3303
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at email@example.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.