WHO’S IN CHARGE In early 2001 when I was flying back from assignment in El Salvador, the aroma of fried chicken wafted through the cabin. In overhead bins and under seats, passengers had stuffed brightly colored bags and boxes of their favorite fast food for friends and family back in Boston. That was my introduction to Pollo Campero, the fast-food chicken chain launched in 1971 by the Gutierrez family in Guatemala.
Back then, the devotion to this fast food just bemused me. To my untutored nose, the smell was only that of hot chicken. For El Salvadorians, it was the aroma of home.
THE LOCALE Today, Boston area residents craving Pollo Campero chicken need only go to Chelsea, East Boston, and — as of November — Lynn. The Gutierrez family, which still runs the chain, has expanded with more than 70 US locations and 350 restaurants worldwide.
When the first local Pollo Campero opened in Chelsea in 2009, In its opening week the restaurant “attracted hours-long lines and sold 95,000 to 100,000 pieces of chicken,” according to the Globe. These days at dinnertime, there’s usually a line at the counter.
For many, the cheerful logo of the chicken in hat and scarf is a mouth-watering beacon, the prospect of a hot meal brought home for the family.
“It’s not just a piece of chicken, it’s memory,” said regional manager Rosaura Santos, who was born in El Salvador and raised in Guatemala. “My grandfather always told me if I got good grades we could go to Pollo Campero; so I always tried to get good grades.”
So many El Salvadorians cannot go back to their homeland; so they appreciate the memories of things past, conjured by the smell and taste of fried chicken, she said.
ON THE MENU Such devotion should not surprise New Englanders wedded to Dunkin’ Donuts, Kelly’s Roast Beef, or any number of local culinary addictions. Santos said people love Pollo Campero because “we have the best fried chicken . . . that’s what the people say.”
The menu is uniform across the US outlets. Like that other famous chicken chain, you may order two- and three-piece or half chicken meals with accompanying sides for prices ranging from $5.29 to $9.89.
Sides include Campero beans ($2.29), Campero rice ($2.29), black beans ($2.29), yucca fries, ($2.59), sweet plantains ($2.59), and corn salad ($2.59). There also are chicken-filled empanadas ($1.89) and camperitos or chicken bits (five for $3.99). And yes, there’s flan ($2.09) for dessert.
We ordered a half-chicken special — two wings and two breasts ($10.19) — that came with succulent and fresh corn salad, Campero beans that had a slight kick, and corn tortillas. We asked for both fried and grilled chicken; the fried had a thin, crunchy layer over hot, juicy meat; the citrus-grilled (something created for the American market, Santos said) was juicy and savory.
We sampled and liked the plantains (soft and sweet) and the yucca fries (starchy, not greasy.) A nice touch: If you choose to eat in the restaurant, meals are brought to you on brightly colored plates.
You can’t really review fast food. You either crave it or you don’t. In my mind, I’d drive past a KFC to go to Pollo Campero — no disrespect intended to fans of the Colonel.
Keep this in mind: one of the strengths of America is – or at least used to be – the embrace of cultural and culinary habits of immigrants. Italian spaghetti, tacos and burritos, General Gau’s chicken, falafel wraps, hummus, and so many other dishes are part of the American palate. Pollo Campero is now making memories in Massachusetts.
Pollo Campero, 115 Park St., Chelsea, 617-884-0070; 25 State St., Lynn, 781-581-1370; www.campero.com .
Stephanie Schorow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .