I pass El Pollo Correteado on the northeast corner of Jefferson and 16th streets on my way home from work. “100% mesquite,” a yellow sign says. “Meal Deal $5,” advertises text near a window. “Open,” a sign above the entrance blinks. The building features a pair of useless overhangs that make it look like it once housed a gas station or car repair shop. From the street, you can glimpse sacks of mesquite charcoal piled by the door. I always wonder about the place, and make for the freeway.
But the other day, I impulsively turned in.
El Pollo Correteado is the rare place that cooks one thing: chicken. Chickens are dredged in seasoning and loaded into a cage-like long rack. They are then cooked over a mesquite fire, one with flames leaping a foot above the fuel source. You can see the cooking happen from the modest dining room. Windows into the kitchen reveal the whole show.
When the chicken is brown and crisp, it awaits your order in a warming area.
You can get three pieces of chicken, salsa, five tortillas, and a soda for $5. A half-chicken, segmented, comes out with containers of salsa, lemons, pickled red onions, green chiles, and tortillas. It costs $6.57. The whole bird will run you $13.12, a 10-piece platter $12.11. Aside from chicken, you can order macaroni salad, mashed potatoes, and beans.
That’s the whole menu.
Spanish fills the dining room. Most comes from a corner-mounted TV. Some comes from the cashier, some from the cooks, some from the customers. If you pay with plastic, the screen you finger-sign is in Spanish. The only English I heard came in response to my questions.
Chicken comes in a Styrofoam container. You can gnaw chicken straight from the leg or thigh, or you can get in there with your hands, tear off meat, place it onto a tortilla, and fix a hot taco. There is a savage pleasure to this. The plastic fork and knife aren’t up to the task, and who cares? Who wants to eat with utensils when what you can make an argument that what you’re eating is finger food?
This chicken is insanely juicy. The skin has grill-kissed flavor and hot fat. Pickled onions, salsa, and lemon juice provide freshness. As you eat, your fingers get too greasy to use a phone, too greasy to take a picture to Instagram. That is a good thing.
We need more places like El Pollo Correteado, that choose not to focus on design and digital appeal, more places that put the food at the meal's center.
We need more places that do one thing, but do that one thing well. Eateries tend to err on the side of glutting menus with dishes. Who cares if a fine restaurant can cook 50 dishes instead of 12? It would take many visits to get past the 12, and I would rather the 12 be good so that I could circle back to one or two favorites as opposed to zooming to dish number 20 and off into the margins. Why do some Mexican-American spots make 12 kinds of enchiladas when one attacked with focus would be so much better?
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El Pollo Correteado gets this. The place cooks a juicy half-chicken. The walls into the kitchen have transparent sections, and you can see cooks focusing on getting the goods right. You know exactly what you're going to get here, and you know it's going to be satisfying. If you’re hungry and in the neighborhood, consider turning into the parking lot and giving this place a try.
El Pollo Corretedo. 1602 East Jefferson Street; 602-253-4624.
Daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.