Chicken dishes rule the roost at Pollo Amigo

November 22, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In some broiled-chicken restaurants, customers can build up an appetite watching their meal turn gently on a rotisserie before it is brought to their table. No such luck at Pollo Amigo. Here, the magic takes place behind the shiny silver doors of a refrigerator-sized oven.

That's where the chickens are broiled over charcoal. When they emerge, their skins are deep mahogany, and so crisp they almost burst open at the touch of a fork. Hints of garlic, cumin and paprika provide a heady counterpoint to the mild flavor of the juicy meat. And here's more good news: A half a bird, plus two sides, goes for $7.95.

Pollo Amigo, a tiny restaurant wedged into a forlorn-looking corner of a Towson shopping strip, doesn't offer much in the way of atmosphere or amenities, but the food is pretty terrific.

On a simple menu with less than 20 entrees -- about half Peruvian and half Mexican -- the chicken gets top billing. But other dishes are also delicious. On the Mexican side of the menu, the choices include simple burritos, chimichangas and enchiladas. And on the Peruvian side, a grilled steak dish called carne asada ($9.95) is offered alongside pollo saltado ($8.95), a chicken stew with onions and tomatoes.

Another Peruvian choice, Shrimp Entomado ($10.95), which means, as you've probably guessed, shrimp and tomato, combines white wine, garlic, butter and tomato to create a heady base for a stew of fat shrimp, sauteed onions and chunks of red and green pepper. The almost-overwhelmingly rich flavors were countered just slightly by sides of white rice and a ladleful of gently spiced fried beans.

Tacos, available with chicken, beef or tender, fatty slivers of pork ($6.95-$8.95), come rolled in soft, fresh corn tortillas, the warm meat topped with a cold, finely chopped mix of lettuce, onion and tomato.

Our only disappointment, and maybe this was our fault, was that we were not offered a choice of sides. Though yucca, plantains and salad are listed as options on the menu, we didn't notice that until it was too late, and we weren't asked. With every entree, we were given rice and beans.

Pollo Amigo feels like it was set up in a hurry -- the few tables crowded into the small space are shaky and shabby. The restaurant certainly lacks the deep-pocketed "themed" decor that sets the mood at so many dining establishments, but it doesn't need it.

Even though most of the staff members don't speak much English, they are friendly and welcoming, even offering recommendations if asked. After you order, the food is prepared as you wait. Within minutes, disposable plates piled high with food are handed to you, steaming hot, on cafeteria-style trays, along with plastic cutlery and paper napkins.

You can have soda or bottled water with your meal, but if you're feeling more adventurous, a cooler is filled with all manner of unusual drinks, including cans of coconut juice ($1) and Inka soda ($2), which is bright yellow and tastes like liquid bubble gum.

The countertop is the place to find desserts, a neglected-looking array of cookies and cakes under glass domes. A golf-ball-sized candy made of coconut and caramelized brown sugar was dense and sweet, and did a fine job of countering the garlic-infused richness of the food.

Towson is a town with a soft spot for good, inexpensive food, particularly if the restaurant feels authentic, as Pollo Amigo does. During a recent lunch hour, all three tables were taken, and a steady stream of customers was picking up takeout orders. Here's hoping the afternoon bustle means Pollo Amigo will be around for a while.

Pollo Amigo

Where: 714 York Road, Towson

Call: 410-494-0061

Open: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers and sides, $2-$2.50, entrees $5.95-$13.95

Food: *** (3 STARS)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** (2 STARS)

[Outstanding: 4 STARS -- Good: 3 STARS -- Fair or uneven: 2 STARS -- Poor: 1 STAR

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