Annatto Powder, Achiote Paste, and Neon Red Pollo Supremo

Tacos may very well be the perfect food, but let's face it, the standard Meximerican fare can get a bit stale after a while. Taco the Town is here to highlight some of the more unusual Mexican finds in the valley. This week: Annatto Powder, which creates the bright red chicken served up by El Pollo Supremo.

¿Como se dice?: Mexicans throw one mean barbeque. Mounds of succulent carne asada, grilled onions, fresh tortillas, and salsa. If you're lucky, you can also score a juicy mound of bright red grilled chicken that's just a bit different from the norm. This odd take on traditional grilled chicken gets its bright red color courtesy of the annatto seed, which can be ground to a powder and is a main component of achiote paste (or recado rojo).

If you've ever stopped by a carniceria (Mexican butcher) or hit up Pro's Ranch Market, you've seen this bright red chicken in the raw. But there's only once place in the valley where this neon red bird comprises over half of the menu: El Pollo Supremo.

(sink your teeth into all the spicy details after the jump)

La Comida: At El Pollo Supremo, there's only two things on the menu: meat and more meat. You can choose between a plate of carne asada or the electric red chicken, but if you're feeling indulgent you can splurge for the combo platter to get a bit of both. Each meal is served with a soupy pile of pintos (not frijoles borrachos, but still damn tasty), pickled purple onions (cebollitas), smooth salsa (blended salsa bandera, o pico de gallo if you prefer), and your choice of corn or flour tortillas (mais o harina).

The potent pigment in annatto powder, is what gives this grilled chicken its deep red color. The annatto seed has been used to dye just about everything, from fabric to slices of good old fashioned American cheese across the world. In addition to Mexico, annatto is used in cooking across South and Central America, through the island nations of the Caribbean, and in the Philippines.

El Sabor: The flavor of annatto seeds isn't all that pronounced, and they're used primarily for their color rather than their taste. It's also the main component in achiote paste (also known as recado rojo), a potent spice medley that is commonly used in Yucatan cooking like cochinita o pollo pibil. This spice mixture can vary, but generally includes annatto powder, Mexican oregano, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic and salt. Press that all into a block and you've got mega flavor at the flick of a wrist.

The chicken at El Pollo Supremo doesn't taste so much like this distinct combination of spices as much as it does delicious grilled chicken. So it's likely that the wizards in the kitchen are tapping straight annatto powder to achieve that brilliant red hue rather than massaging breasts and thighs with achiote paste. Those kinky birds. But who are we to say? Every chef needs a couple secrets in the kitchen.

Bring a bit of México to your kitchen: Annatto powder and achiote paste are both readily available at Food City and other Mexican grocers. Huge ethnic mish mash markets like Lee Lee's will also have an aisle devoted solely to Central and South American ingredients like this.

If you're choosing to purchase the annatto powder (or annatto seeds to grind into powder), be forewarned that the spice has two different hues. There's a water soluble yellowish tint and a much redder oil soluble color. So if you're looking to release the bright red color of the annatto powder, make sure to heat it in a sauce pan with oil before using. One part seed to two parts oil. Strain used seeds or powder after heating and discard.

Now that you've got shelf stable, bright red annatto oil, whip up some bright red grilled chicken to challenge El Pollo Supremo. There are also plenty of options for tasty bright red achiote chicken using the more easily obtained paste as well!

Know of any Mexican gems in the valley? Reveal your family secrets in the comment section.

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Erica O'Neil