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Pollo Campero's Got a Brand New Bag (of Chicken)

I grew up eating at the old-school Pollo Campero on Bellaire Boulevard, the fast-food chicken joint featuring a bright-yellow chick with a sombrero on its head and a plate of fried chicken in its hand. The logo is one of the most gleeful celebrations of cannibalism since the Victorian-era Cochon Prodigue ads featuring a pig slicing himself into sausages. As you may imagine, I have a lot of love in my heart for Pollo Campero and its signature product, which is some of the best fried chicken outside of my mom's cast-iron skillet.

And I'm not alone. The 40-year-old company, based in Guatemala and now one of the Americas' largest fast food chains with over 300 global locations, has its staunch fans, many of whom are Latin American and not necessarily keen to see their old Guatemalan favorite turning over a new leaf.

Although it's kept the same spices, marinades and seasonings for its classic fried and grilled chicken, Pollo Campero has introduced an entirely new look and menu for the rest of its new batch of restaurants. Two of those new Pollo Camperos have recently opened in Webster and Missouri City, with a Houston location at 4701 Washington Avenue opening tomorrow.

"Some of them say that the chicken doesn't even taste the same!" laughed Lisken Kastalanych, vice president of marketing for Pollo Campero. "But it's the same recipe."

It's a bold move to open a fast-casual Latin American restaurant right next door to El Rey -- a popular Houston-based chain that specializes in Mexican and Cuban dishes -- but Pollo Campero is offering something entirely different. For one, it's not open at breakfast.

At lunch and dinner, Pollo Campero offers semi-self-service: Order at the counter and your food will be brought to your table, along with napkins and real flatware (nothing plastic here). You can help yourself to the salsa bar and endless refills, but the servers will also refill your drinks for you if you'd rather stay seated.

On the menu, you'll find tacos, of course. But not your standard tacos: These are filled with items like carne asada topped with caramelized onions, queso fresco and a house-made avocado salsa, or carnitas topped with pickled red onions.

Empanadas are filled with tamarindo salsa and pulled pork, sandwiches are filled with grilled chicken and a bright tomatillo salsa piled on crispy Cuban bread. Sides include dishes like addictively crispy yucca fries and a tangy Chilean tomato-cucumber salad with mint.

In other words, El Rey has nothing to fear: There is very little overlap in the menus, and the vibes of the two places couldn't be more dissimilar.

During today's quick preview of the new place, I found myself loving the soda fountain and its side-by-side array of guava, mango and horchata aguas frescas. One of the enthusiastic employees, a young man named Devon, showed me how to make his favorite drink from the fountains: the Pollo Campero special, a delightful suicide-style blend of guava, mango and Sprite.

I also loved the salsa bar, with less traditional blends like tamarind-chipotle and a great big bin of cilantro and onions for the street-style tacos served on corn tortillas. I only lamented that the bland corn tortillas themselves aren't made in-house like everything else here. But if that was the only complaint I could find in a fast-food restaurant, I'd say Pollo Campero will be a hugely welcome addition to the Washington Avenue corridor -- one that I hope sticks around a long time after the bars and clubs have come and gone.

And I'm equally happy to report that Pollo Campero's fried chicken is still as good as ever.


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