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I am someone who is willing to drive a good distance for good food. An hour, two hours, a day, even—the journey only intensifying the anticipation that is at the heart of most food pursuits.
What I am not is someone who is willing to wait in line to eat.
The first time I tried going to Pollo Campero was shortly after it opened in Falls Church, at the end of 2003. It was lunchtime. The line snaked around the building and trudged along at an DMV-like pace. Traffic flow nearby fell victim to rubbernecking. The loyalists, Latinos who knew the brand from back home in Central and South America, had queued up since as early as 3 in the morning, some with blankets. I was curious, and the smell was alluring, but I ended up waiting only a half-hour before bailing without a taste.
I tried again several months later, thinking that surely the lines would have died down. Ha. The same slow-moving queue, the same sluggish traffic. This time I didn’t even get out of my car.
I was in the minority, here, in more ways than one—in its first 36 days the Falls Church location took in about $1 million.
Late last year, a Pollo Campero opened in Langley Park. I kept a close eye on this location, driving by every once in a while to monitor the lines. One Saturday, in the middle of the afternoon, I lucked out. There was—shockingly—no line at all. I slipped in for my long-awaited taste.
It’d be hard for any chicken to live up to the hype, and it was probably inevitable that my first bite of thigh would be one of mild disappointment. This is what I waited for? Fast-food chicken?
Ah, but Pollo Campero’s is not merely fast-food chicken. It’s exceptional fast-food chicken. All those innumerable holes-in-the-wall springing up with “pollo” in their names would probably lead you to expect a grilled or spit-roasted bird. But what you find at Pollo Campero is the beloved crispy staple of picnics and Sunday dinners, the American classic.
Make that: classic of the Americas.
These are unfailingly juicy birds—a result, no doubt, of the citrus-based marinade that has been injected beneath the surface of the skin at the Perdue processing plants. They’re also unfailingly salty; I was thirsty for hours afterward.
But what distinguishes Pollo Campero’s chicken is its skin, a virtually greaseless and exceptionally crisp sheath whose ruddy tint put me in mind of red clay. The color derives, in part, from the blend of 11 “secret” spices in the flour mix, shipped from Guatemala every few weeks. One of those is surely red pepper, which gives the chicken the barest whiff of piquancy, not enough to generate a lot of palatal excitement, but enough to separate Pollo Campero from KFC.
You get two sides with every order—and, really, there are only two to consider. Skip the Spanish-style rice, the mayo-heavy cole slaw, and the dull mashed potatoes. Set your sights on the thin-cut, crispy fries and the beans—soft pintos set to swimming in a rich, fragrant broth that reminds you of frijoles borrachos, or “drunken” beans, and includes bits of sausage, bacon, jalapeño, garlic, and cilantro.
That’s the good news.
The bad news?
No, not the lines, which appear to have diminished, at least.
The bad news is that what strikes me now as novelty is certain to be a casualty of the company’s coming ubiquity. Outlets have opened in Herndon and Wheaton, with three more anticipated to launch in the metro area by the end of this year and another three by the end of 2006. Expect that number to double within the next five years, according to Dan Anderson, the chief operating officer of an outfit called American Pollo, the franchisee for the metropolitan area.
Anderson laughs off the possibility of competing with KFC, but at a time when American corporations are committing hundreds of millions to tapping the burgeoning Latino demographic, Campero possesses a singular advantage. Throughout Central and South America, the 34-year-old brand carries the same instant recognition and good-vibes connotations as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
But the first challenge for American Pollo, says Anderson, is in reassuring its base—all those immigrants in the Latin diaspora who, as the company’s marketing would have it, “long for a taste of home”—that Campero here means the same as Campero there. Toward that end, American Pollo has embarked on a campaign of heavy advertising and grass-roots-style outreach in the area’s Latino communities that would make Karl Rove envious. In September, to commemorate Central American Independence Day, Campero will visit local schools with containers of horchata, tamarindo, and marañón. Throughout the year, it will be sponsoring D.C. United soccer clinics.
Soccer clinics, which are also full of “soccer moms.” Challenge No. 2.
It remains to be seen whether Campero’s anticipated twofer will pan out. But the company is exploring other avenues in the hope of achieving “mainstream” penetration. Anderson says it has begun advertising in English-language newspapers. It has been sending employees to English classes.
“The average American,” Anderson asserts, “must feel comfortable coming into our store.”
Pollo Campero, 1355 E. University Blvd., Langley Park, (301) 408-0555.—Todd Kliman
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