Around Mill Avenue, one good thing seems to deserve another. El Pollo Supremo has been serving up charcoal-grilled chicken just west of Mill for years. Not too long ago, a new joint, Bad Mother Cluckers, opened up shop just barely east of Mill, and also features charcoal-grilled chicken. Clearly, a little friendly rivalry is in order here. Whose bird is better, and who's just playing chicken?
In This Corner: El Pollo Supremo
The Setup: El Pollo Supremo has operated out of a modest storefront on University and Ash for ages. The steady trickle of people greeted by name as they walk in the door is a testament to El Pollo Supremo's status as a neighborhood fixture. They're a favorite of ours too, snagging Best of Phoenix in 2011 for their pollo asado. They stick to the tried-and-true mantra to do one thing (well, two very similar things) and do it well; the only entrée choices are charcoal-grilled chicken or beef (or both) and how much you want.
The Good: El Pollo Supremo more than delivers on value, serving a quarter chicken with beans, tortillas, salsa, and pickled onions for the grand sum of $4.39. It's a rare place these days where you can pick up a full lunch for less than five bucks without resorting to drive-thru. The chicken was juicy, and nicely seasoned with an achiote rub.
The Bad: El Pollo Supremo only takes cash; forget to pick up some bills on the way and you'll have to jaunt across Ash to Circle K. The accompanying salsa didn't have much tomato taste going for it, but their house-made product still beat the hell out of anything from a jar.
And In This Corner: Bad Mother Cluckers
The Setup: Bad Mother Cluckers opened late last year in a long-abandoned space once home to an art supply store, just east of the revolving door of a space on Mill and University. Since Barney's Boathouse left for the upscale environs of downtown Scottsdale, Bad Mother Cluckers has taken over the role of cheap college hangout. Inside, oversize Jenga sets dot the tables. The front patio has a Bimini Ring Game (you know, the ring-and-hook thing) set up. There's an extensive backyard space with several yard games waiting, including cornhole sets. Suffice to say, it's easy to keep entertained.
The Good: BMC's birds are extra-flavorful thanks to a hefty dose of delicious dry rub. Unlike El Pollo Supremo, BMC has a liquor license. Their target demographic is clearly cash-strapped college students; the draft beer is Rolling Rock, and small cups (I think 8-ounce, might have been 10) go for a mere fifty cents(!) from 3 pm until the place closes at 11. I usually turn up my nose at macrobrew lager, but at that price I'll happily shut up and drink. Well drinks are almost as cheap, with margaritas going for all of $3. The bustling collegiate crowd provides excellent people-watching opportunities.
The Bad: BMC's food is notably more expensive than the screaming deal at El Pollo Supremo. The menu is à la carte; a quarter chicken runs $4.50, and a side dish is an extra $2, bringing the total for comparable meals to $6.50. It's still a decent deal, but not when compared to the competition. I wanted to try their BBQ beans, but the guy who cooks them was out that day (hey guys, there's this cool invention called a recipe); the counter employee said the mac and cheese was awesome. Alas, it was a bland, dry snooze. The bar selection is extremely limited; the nicest beer offering is $3 cans of Kilt Lifter, and the aforementioned margaritas are a horrifying DayGlo shade from cheap sour mix. People-watching can often be a little too good; The older you are, the more you'll wish you paid a few bucks extra somewhere else just so you don't have to deal with a bunch of drunk, rowdy frat rats. Naturally, over the summer this isn't nearly as much of an issue.
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And The Winner Is... Neither place was an absolute knockout, so the winner is by points. The margin was slim. Both provided good (if a bit unremarkable) food at good prices, a sure recipe for success when near a university. Bad Mother Cluckers' chicken was the better of the two thanks to the dry rub, but El Pollo Supremo's price point is irresistible. What this battle comes down to for me is atmosphere. Both places have downscale decor, but I found the jovial surroundings of Bad Mother Cluckers to be quite enjoyable. The dirt-cheap beer was icing on the cake. So, new kid in town Bad Mother Cluckers wins by a nose.
If I allowed tag-teaming, the battle would have been a two-against-one takedown. A few doors down from El Pollo Supremo is Taste of Tops. They have a terrific beer selection with two dozen taps and literally hundreds of bottles, and they let you bring food since they have no kitchen. So, get that El Pollo Supremo chicken to go, take it over to Taste of Tops, and it's winner, winner, chicken dinner.