In the hunt for the latest trendy restaurants, our spotlight often misses neighborhoods that are home to some of the Valley's best kitchens — including those making metro Phoenix's best tacos. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be guiding you toward the Valley’s tastiest tacos, and the taquerías that serve them. Welcome to Taco Summer.
44: El Pollo Correteado
Taquería: El Pollo Correteado, 2904 West McDowell Road
Open Since: 2009
Style: Northern Mexican pollo asado grilled chicken cooked over mesquite wood coals
Signature Taco: The one you make yourself from a stack of tortillas and grilled chicken picked off the bone
“People ask us if we sell tacos,” Rosa Hernandez begins in Spanish, with her grandson, Irwingh Gaxiola Jr., translating for her. Then, she stops, and the two exchange glances before telling me their answer to a question they hear every day, several times a day, from new customers.
“We say, ‘No,’” she answers after a pause.“‘But you can make them.’”
In addition to slices of marinated red onion, salsa, deep-fried-until-blistered green chiles, and lemon wedges, every order of mesquite-grilled chicken at the family-operated El Pollo Correteado comes with a stack of warm corn tortillas.
The food here is sold both family-style, either by the half-chicken (most suitable for a solo diner), whole chicken, or in 10-piece increments, and picnic-style, in that you should plan to eat with your hands.
To make a perfect taco here, you'll have to past the ultimate test. Once your chicken is set before you, can you pick up a hot, juicy drumstick with its greasy charred bits of seasoning and marinade immediately coating your fingertips, strip the meat off, pinch by pinch, and resist the temptation to simply take a bite straight from the bone long enough to create a respectable pile of taco filling?
If you do end up saving some grilled chicken pieces for your taco, simply add a few slices of pickled red onion, salsa, chili, and a squeeze of lime, fold, and enjoy. The practice reminded me of eating central Texas barbecue, where they won't make you a brisket sandwich, but they will supply you with a few slices of white bread to do with what you please.
If restraint or DIY taco-building isn't your thing, it’s equally fun to treat the pollo asado as most El Pollo Correteado patrons appear to: diving straight in, and using the tortillas for cleanup. Also similar to many barbecue joints, here you will also find plastic tubs, sold in chica and grande sizes, of macaroni salad, mashed potatoes, and pinto beans.
“We make everything homemade,” Hernandez says.
By “we” she means her son, Irwingh Gaxiola Sr., who manages the restaurant, her grandson Irwingh Jr., who is in high school and helps on the weekends, and her small kitchen crew. They do most of the prep work in the morning, so that by 11 a.m., when the busiest part of their day — the lunch rush — begins, they're ready to serve large volumes of chicken, fast.
On Saturday, their busiest day of the week, the fridge behind the counter is completely stocked with bottled Mexican sodas and picnic sides. Yet, only one cook mans the grill and butchers the chickens. At one point I count over three dozen chickens cooking at various stages. The birds are pulled from the marinade, splayed and clamped into metal spits that lie horizontally over a large open bed of mesquite coals, and placed on the hottest part of the grill, on the right of the grillman who moves them to the cooler side of the grill, to his left, as they finish cooking.
His timing is perfect. The kitchen is filled with perfume of chicken grease hitting the pit of coals. The aroma teases the patient patrons waiting for their lunches, wafting past them into the street as if to lure in those driving by.
A lot of people come in, sometimes from far away, Hernandez tells me, based on rumors or on recommendations of their friends and family. When they arrive for the first time, in addition to their taco queries, they always seem to ask if her chicken recipe is any good.
A few minutes later, they pick up a drumstick, take a bite, and then she says they ask another question:
“When will you be opening another location?”
There will be another, she tells them. She and her family are working slowly towards it.
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It was only eight years ago that the Hernandez family opened the restaurant at their location at McDowell Road and 29th Avenue, but they have been in the pollo asado business for more than four generations. Rosa Hernandez's secret marinade recipe is the same one that was employed at the little shops the family once owned in the northern Mexican states of Sinaloa and San Luis Potosí.
I asked Hernandez, a widow, if she ever misses Mexico. She replies that she gets to work every day with her son and her grandson. (Most of her family is here in Phoenix). “There’s been a lot of hard work. A lot of dedication. A lot of tradition,” her grandson translates for her. “I get to pass something along to them for their future,” she says. “Something better.”