At 11:52 a.m., I ease into the line of cars waiting to pull in to the parking lot of the new fried chicken franchise Pollo Campero. The traffic has backed up one lane of Bellaire Boulevard all the way to Chatwood, where a Taco Bell and a McDonald's sit across the street from each other. There are plenty of parking spots available at those familiar American franchises, but nobody in this line shows any interest. Shortly after noon, my car starts overheating and I have to turn the engine off, which is fine since the line is barely moving anyway.
At around 12:20 p.m. I finally get to park the car. But I have to stand in line again at the front door, where there are around 50 people waiting to get in. Except for a guy named Tom who's keeping his Colombian wife company, my friend Jay Francis and I appear to be the only Anglos.
I strike up a conversation with Douglas Antonio, a young Salvadoran roofer with a shaved head and a soul patch who has lived in Houston for five months. My Spanish isn't perfect, but I understand him to say that the flavor and the lack of grease are what make the chicken here appealing. He also uses the word nostálgico, which I assume means "nostalgia" but my Spanish-English dictionary also defines as "homesickness."
"Did you eat this chicken a lot back in El Salvador?" I ask.
"Mucho," he smiles.
"And do you miss it?"
"Mucho," he repeats.
I reach the front counter just after 1 p.m. and order a family pack, which comes with eight pieces of chicken, two sides and a choice of tortillas or rolls. I get tortillas. The transaction takes place entirely in Spanish. At 1:08 p.m. I get my chicken. One hour and 16 minutes is not too bad for Pollo Campero on a Saturday afternoon.
"Tierno! Jugoso! Crujiente!" reads the slogan on the outside of the chicken box. And "Tender! Juicy! Crunchy!" is a pretty fair description. The crust, formed by a simple flour dip, is very crisp. And the meat is marinated before it's cooked, so it stays extremely moist. But the most astonishing thing about Pollo Campero's fried chicken is how little grease clings to it. Francis blots a thigh with a paper napkin, and it comes away with very little oil. I've tried similar tests at Popeyes and KFC, and Pollo Campero wins the grease challenge hands down.
I eat a wing and a drumstick by themselves before pulling a breast apart, slathering it with green salsa and rolling it up on a fresh flour tortilla. We both like the green salsa, which tastes like roasted tomatillos, more than the red. But as for the sides, the fries are average, the pinto beans are passable, and the cole slaw is a little bitter.
Still, the restaurant is packed and the line never shrinks. The day this Pollo Campero opened, television news teams were on hand to report that Guatemalans, Salvadorans and other Latin Americans were standing in line for up to five hours to get chicken. Houston hasn't seen such a franchise frenzy since the arrival of Krispy Kreme.
Pollo Campero, the hottest restaurant franchise in the United States, is based in Guatemala.
Protesting the spread of insipid American food culture, farm workers in the south of France trashed a McDonald's there in 1999. The act inspired other anti-McDonald's uprisings around the world. In Peking, women at an environmental conference pried a statue of Ronald McDonald from a bench and threw it in a sewage pond to protest globalization. A bomb planted in a McDonald's in Indonesia killed two; another in Brittany killed one. The protests seemed to have little effect on McDonald's business.
But what the protests couldn't accomplish has come about anyway, through changes in the tastes and ethnic composition of the American population. McDonald's -- in fact, the entire burger-and-fries American-dining paradigm -- is in retreat. Last month, McDonald's CEO, 21-year veteran Jack Greenberg, resigned after reporting the first quarterly operating loss in the corporation's history. Reportedly the chain will be closing stores and laying off employees around the world. Industry analysts claim the decline is the result of McDonald's complacency at a time when consumers are looking for healthier and more ethnically diverse alternatives.
To compound their problems, in November a class action suit was filed in New York against McDonald's on behalf of children with diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The suit alleges that the chain and its advertising are responsible for an epidemic.
Consumers aren't happy with their Happy Meals anymore, and traditional franchises are struggling to come up with new ideas. Wendy's has gone on a buying spree, acquiring a large stake in Houston's Cafe Express and Taco Milagro chains, as well as a franchise from Mexico called Baja Fresh. The Mexican chain, which serves enchiladas on plastic plates, may not be a good bet in a taqueria-heavy town like Houston, but the company has already opened three locations in the affluent but enchilada-challenged suburbs north of Dallas, as well as in 17 other states.
Latin American flavors aren't the only ones in vogue. Taiwanese tapioca tea franchises are bubbling up all over the country, and an Indian bakery is coming on strong with halal pizzas (see the future installments of this series for more information on these phenomena). Pho Cong Ly, the Vietnamese noodle franchise that was founded by an undercapitalized Vietnamese immigrant in Southern California, now boasts more than 40 locations in the United States and Canada, and a nearly equal number in Asia.
After years of watching the spread of McDonald's and KFCs in their homelands, restaurant chains from the rest of the world are now invading the United States. Their revenge is delicious.
So, is Pollo Campero's chicken worth the long wait?
That depends on who you are. An objective taste test would reveal that you can get better chicken at homegrown Houston institutions like Frenchy's, the Creole chicken shack in the Third Ward where African-Americans have been waiting in line for hot fried chicken night and day since 1969. (No TV crews so far.) But if you're Hispanic or love to eat that way, the salsas, tortillas and beans at Pollo Campero make it more attractive. And if you grew up in Central America, this fried chicken is simply irresistible. It's a fascinating illustration of the psychological power of taste memory.
"Remember when we went to Piedras Negras?" my friend Francis asks by way of explanation. I assure him I recall the trip. I was invited to judge the International Nacho Festival there last October, and Francis came along. We ate nothing but nachos and other Mexican dishes for the better part of a week. "And remember how as soon as we got back across the border, we made a beeline for the Whataburger?" I nod my head in agreement. I ordered a double meat Whataburger, and although it was just a hamburger, it evoked all sorts of warm and fuzzy emotions.
For Central Americans who haven't been back to their home country for months, or even years, Pollo Campero conjures up even more intense feelings. The chain's trademark, a chicken in a cowboy hat, is part of Latin American pop culture, gracing 170 fried chicken restaurants in Central and South America and even appearing in a cartoon show for kids. Central American expats bring so much Pollo Campero chicken to their homesick friends back in the States that the chain built outlets in airports. The aroma on these flights became so overwhelming that El Salvador's Grupa TACA airlines eventually requested that the chain sell its chicken in airtight packages.
When the first U.S. Pollo Campero franchise opened in Los Angeles last year, it sold 17.5 tons of chicken a week, grossing over $1 million in sales in its first seven weeks in business. Based on the incredible demand, the chain has announced plans to open 200 locations in the United States over the next five years.
That a Guatemalan chicken chain is beating McDonald's on its own turf is a source of great pride for the Central American community. And the chicken is indeed tasty. But what's really drawing the crowds is the yearning of a bicultural community for a taste of home. There are some 115,000 Central Americans in Houston, and almost all of them grew up eating at Pollo Campero. For them, this fried chicken is not only the cure for nostálgico, it's a way to remember their ethnic identity.
As the Chinese philosopher Lin Yü-t'ang once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?"
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