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By Eating Our Words
My friend calls from her cell phone. She's up in the Heights and offers to pick up dinner on her way over. That's an offer I can't refuse, since it's way too hot to cook. In cooler climes, they barbecue this time of year. In Houston, we barbecue during football season. No one ventures outside during the summer. And if you're fool enough to try grilling something, it's the mosquitoes that do most of the eating.
My dining companion asks what she should get. It's Sunday, and our usual bag of Whataburgers (I'm a No. 2, double meat, double cheese with jalapeños) sounds sacrilegious. What about Thai food -- is Vung Cafe open on Sunday?
I once did research on the street foods of Bangkok, a tropical city with a climate similar to ours. There, the average household doesn't even have a kitchen. They rely on takeout -- or "take-away," as they say in the Outback commercials -- for nearly all their meals.
5532 Airline Drive
Houston, TX 77076
Region: Outer Loop - NW
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Dodo's Chicken, 9431 Richmond, 713-789-3636. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
The phone starts cutting out, and she wants a suggestion. Well, the all-American Sunday dinner is roasted chicken. So I tell her to swing by Pollo Riko, the South American rotisserie that just opened a new location at Airline and Tidwell. You can get a whole chicken with tortillas there for $8.29.
She stops by, but instead of just chicken, she splurges on a "super combo," a whole chicken with tortillas and five sides for $14.89. We spread it all out on a big platter when she gets back; there's salty red beans and white rice, starchy yuca, gooey sweet fried plantains, a slightly wilted house salad and some boring boiled red potatoes. It looks great, even if it's not quite the Sunday dinner Norman Rockwell would have painted.
The chicken is moist and very flavorful, with a nice garlic tang and the aroma of mesquite. The breast meat is a little dry, but it tastes great on a tortilla with some of their spicy green salsa.
The chicken is marinated overnight in beer and a secret blend of 30 spices, J.C. Villamil, son of the owner, Nestor Villamil, tells me over the phone a few days later. That reminds me of Kentucky Fried Chicken's legendary "11 herbs and spices." KFC's claim was challenged in William Poundstone's 1983 book, Big Secrets. The author hired a laboratory to analyze the Colonel's chicken. The lab detected only flour, salt, pepper and MSG, which has made me forever skeptical of claims about secret spice blends.
KFC was the first American fast food chain to open restaurants in Colombia. And their success with fried chicken was quickly imitated. But Colombian chains like Kokorico substituted open-flame rotisserie chicken, which is much more popular there. J.C. Villamil tells me that Houston's budding three-store Pollo Riko chain was inspired by Colombia's Kokorico, which was in turn inspired by KFC.
You hear a lot of whining from American studies scholars about globalization spreading bland American tastes to the rest of the globe. But as anybody who lives in Houston knows, globalization is a two-way street.
KFC and McDonald's have given Asia and Latin America more than greasy chicken and flaccid burgers. They've provided the entrepreneurs there with a working model of a highly profitable, inexpensive restaurant. After sampling American fast food, they have said: "We can do better than this."
And indeed they have -- in their own countries, and in ours. Pollo Campero, the Central American fried chicken franchise, and Hot Breads Bakers, the Indian/ French bakery, are two examples of fast food operations from developing countries that have grown into successful international chains. They're now exporting the exotic flavors of their homelands all over the globe.
Owned by Colombian expats, Pollo Riko is a new twist on the trend. It duplicates the Kokorico fast food format in the Latin American neighborhoods of Houston. But the concept is the same -- it's globalization coming back at ya.
It's a week later, and once again I have no plans for Sunday dinner, so I decide to do a little roast chicken taste test. I hop into the car and stop at Pollo Riko's Fondren location, right by the Southwest Freeway. There I pick up half a chicken, some potato salad and a Caesar salad.
Next, I head for the shopping center on Richmond just west of Fondren, which seems to be the heart of this Colombian neighborhood. That's where Dodo's Chicken is located. A friend insists that this place has the best Colombian roasted chicken in town.
Dodo's has a lot more seating than the Pollo Riko locations, although the dining room isn't particularly attractive. It looks, more or less, like a fast food seating area. There is, however, a nice deck outside with picnic tables. The alfresco dining enclave is shaded by some overgrown shrubs. But like Pollo Riko, Dodo's is designed primarily with takeout in mind.
"El Pollo Asado con el Sabor Latino" is Dodo's slogan. I wonder what exactly gives the roasted chicken "the Latin flavor." Chiles and garlic? Mexican oregano?
I order half a chicken with coleslaw, red beans and rice. While I'm waiting, I strike up a conversation with a guy in an apron who seems to be one of the cooks. He's standing beside the rotisserie and confirms that they use mesquite in their open-flame roaster, just like Pollo Riko.