There’s nothing remarkable about the fried chicken at Pollo Campero — but there’s nothing wrong with it, either. Standard-size pieces (breast, drumstick, thigh, and wing) are coated with a thin but crunchy crust, skin intact and no obvious brining. Though the chicken is on the salty side, it possesses no other noticeable seasoning.
It has been possible to sample the chicken of this Guatemalan chain, founded in 1971, in Corona Plaza within sight of the 7 train for almost 20 years. But the first Manhattan branches just opened at Herald Square (966 Sixth Avenue, near 35th Street) and the Port Authority (601 Eighth Avenue, at 39th Street), so I decided to pay a return visit to remind myself what this international chain tastes like. Besides fried chicken and grilled chicken, the bill of fare also includes empanadas and a whole set of sides you won’t find at KFC or Popeye’s.
The grilled chicken's flesh is soft, as if it had sat for a while in a steamed cabinet. But in spite of that, it’s nicely browned and coated with spices, though the effect of the flavorings is minimal except for one — the pieces taste slightly of lemon, maybe reminding you of the chickens sold at Greek joints like Chirping Chicken. The price for either fried or grilled is $10.75 for a three-piece meal that includes one side and a roll. But here’s a newsflash: you may substitute three warm white-corn tortillas for the chalky roll. Do it, since tortillas increase the pleasure of the chicken dinner immeasurably.
The empanadas are available one for $2.50 or three for $8.75, which sounds like a bad deal until you realize the threesome comes with a side. The empanadas are deep-fried in a flaky wheat-flour pastry and filled with shredded chicken that tastes like it’s been mixed with Russian dressing. Not bad, but the only type of empanada is chicken — it figures.
But now for the sides, which are what really distinguishes Pollo Campero from the other chicken chains that dot the dining landscape.
Mashed potatoes: The usual article, only the spuds are a little grainier and the gravy a darker shade of brown than KFC.
French fries: Not bad, but eat them immediately before you leave the store, because they aren’t good cold.
Yuca fries: Here’s where it starts to get interesting; these are like regular steak fries, only denser and more fibrous, and go nicely with the dipping sauce, which tastes like chipotle mayo.
Sweet plaintains: Fried and candy-sweet.
Campero rice: Dotted with corn kernels and bell peppers, this is mildly disappointing – but hey, it’s rice, and goes well with the beans.
Campero beans: These are the real gem of the chain’s collection of sides, mellow pintos laced with cumin. Along with the rice, you could make a full meal of these.
I’d say beat it over there right away to check out the sides and treat yourself to a meal of grilled chicken, tortillas, and beans. For something sweet, wash it down with horchata and enjoy a flan for dessert — these touches make Pollo Campero a welcome diversion from the usual fried chicken chains.