Restaurant Reviews

Bogotá's Best Birds

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.

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.

"What do you use to flavor the chicken?" I ask him. He mumbles something about seasonings. I badger him a little. "Do you marinate it? Do you baste it with a liquid while it's cooking? At Pollo Riko, they use beer. Do you use beer?"

"No," he finally says. "Fanta fresa."

"Fanta fresa? You mean Fanta strawberry soda?" I ask. He smiles and nods his head in the affirmative. So that's what they mean when they say "el sabor latino"!

Back home, I put the food on separate platters so my dining companion and I can conduct a side-by-side comparison. Dodo's chicken didn't come with any tortillas, a serious omission. The potato salad from Pollo Riko and the coleslaw from Dodo's both taste like they came out of a plastic tub -- Sysco's secret recipe, no doubt. The plain red beans and white rice are innocuous, but all in all, I have to say, the sides from both places are pretty boring.

The half-chickens look different. Dodo's has a golden orange color, no doubt a result of the Fanta bath. I start my taste test with a bite from each thigh. The Pollo Riko chicken has a bold herb-and-garlic flavor. The Dodo's thigh is milder and sweeter, but it's also moister.

The difference in juiciness is even more pronounced in a comparison of the two breasts. The Dodo's breast is absolutely succulent -- each juicy bite melts in my mouth. The Pollo Riko breast has the same delicious herb-and-garlic flavor as the thigh, but it's a little more dried out. It tastes much better wetted with salsa and rolled up on a tortilla.

Colombian rotisserie chicken is one of the tastiest, healthiest and cheapest takeout meals in the city. And Pollo Riko and Dodo's are both turning out excellent renditions.

But Dodo's definitely won this round of taste-testing. Was the difference in flavor due to the quality of the chicken, the roasting technique or the strawberry soda?

I suspect it was something else. When it comes to juiciness, I think Colombian rotisserie chicken is just like Texas barbecue. If you happen to order it at exactly the moment that it's done to perfection, it's as juicy as chicken can be. But a bird that's been held in a warming oven starts to dry out.

Whether you go to Pollo Riko or to Dodo's, try to impress upon the guy behind the counter that you need a really juicy chicken. Repeat after me: "Por favor, ¡un pollo muy jugoso!"

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh