Whenever I travel, I make a point of trying local fast food favorites, be they a regional specialty, a collection of chain drive-thrus or both at once. While every city has its own four star favorites, overpriced brunch bistros and obscure dining legends, no taste is as immediately telling as that of the In-n-Out burger, Jack in the Box taco, Papaya King dog, Uno slice, Runza runza or Taco Cabana beer. A heavenly experience it ain’t, but $5 lunch at the local grease and grill standby offers a glimpse into everyday eating that’s empirically if not always qualitatively authentic.
Local fast food also illustrates the phenomenon of logo loyalty. The United States, perennially enamored with the concept of small business yet fundamentally driven by a lust for expansion, has few peers in its ability to construct deep emotional bonds with brand names. This is not the deep-reaching corporatism of postwar Japan or the greater world’s universal love of soccer. It’s our curious tendency to collect stickers advertising the world’s greatest gringo taco, place the likeness of a second tier fast food mascot atop our car radio antennae and regale every able ear with tales of how Zankou Chicken’s garlic sauce singlehandedly justifies wearing a hideous yellow and red t-shirt, emblazened with a singular “Zankour” as if endowing die-hards with the mystical, roasted powers of the Armenian bird.
During a weekend visit to Washington, a few friends and I took the Metro out to Arlington to gorge on the District of Columbia’s own response to Los Angeles’ Zankou: pollo a la brassa. Transplanted into DC from Peru, this pit smoked specialty skewers marinaded and spice rubbed whole birds on rotisserie and char-broils them over flaming hot coals until the parking lot is engulfed by the scent of barbecued chicken. The market for pollo a la brassa is by no means cornered in the District region, Virginia/Maryland restaurant El Pollo Rico has cultivated the most rabid following of poultry lovers, many of whom offer hands-down allegiance to what they consider the most authentic, flavorful and consistently cooked chicken available.
The owners of El Pollo Rico seem to agree with this assessment, showcasing their rotisserie pits directly behind their cashiers and offering only a mayo-based cole slaw and standard steak fries in accompaniment to their chicken. Fries and slaw are almost always a good thing; here, however, they’re little more than a distraction from the elegant main course: a richly flavored and textured chicken that is the stuff of daydream cravings. The meat is well marinated and unforgivingly juicy. The skin is greasy, crispy and brushed liberally with a salt, pepper, garlic, cumin and citrus seasoning paste, a simple but potent blend of flavors bolstered by the raw spice and tang of the Peruvian green chile sauce tossed onto your tray in tiny plastic shot glasses. For those in search of the real deal, El Pollo Rico, as well as the popular myth surrounding its success, seems to me as authentic as it gets.
However, just a mile away is the taster’s choice for pollo a la brassa and my personal favorite when it comes to unfried chicken. Super Pollo, which stands around the corner from the Ballston commons shopping mall, isn’t nearly as well known as El Pollo Rico, but it has developed a following of its own as El Pollo Rico’s most serious competitor. A back-to-back comparison of the two eateries didn’t do anything to tarnish either one’s street cred, but for anyone interested in unbridling their taste buds for the full experience of Peruvian fast food, Super Pollo is the bird to beat.
Front and center is the chicken. Rubbed with at least twice as much seasoning as the chicken at El Pollo Rico, Super Pollo’s main course delivers an uppercut of flavor that’s almost disorienting upon first bite. Although Super Pollo’s meat isn’t noticeably marinated or especially juicy, its intense quilt of spices somehow manages to completely overstep its logical sodium allotment without making so much as a dent in my desire to never stop eating. While El Pollo Rico serves juicier, more robust cuts of meat, Super Pollo takes no prisoners in its attempt to capture customer loyalty- its exaggerations simply make the chicken more memorable and more addictive.
Super Pollo also wins this face-off because of the amount of attention it pays to side dishes, all of which are served generously as accompaniments to that delectable chicken. Their fried yuca, every bite a joyful marriage of airy crisp and rich starch, devastates El Pollo Rico’s french fries without pause. Their refried beans, cooked to just the right balance of whole and mash, are steeped in peppery, meaty flavor, as is their deceptively delicious chicken fried rice. Their plantains, while soggier than should be allowed, are nonetheless ripe, flavorful and priced equally alongside the rest of the roster. By thoroughly batting down the traditional chicken shack weakness of uninteresting side dishes, Super Pollo delivers a more satisfying meal and many more reasons to return to Arlington than its humbler counterparts. As far as I know, an unattractive t-shirt is not in the works, but as long as Super Pollo keeps turning out the goods I wouldn’t be above carrying a lucky chicken’s leg to show others what it means to eat a chicken dinner in the District of Columbia.
607 N. Randolph St.
Arlington, VA 22203
|El Pollo Rico
932 N. Kenmore St.
Arlington, VA 22201