Food & Drink

Why You Need to Go to Pollo Campero, the KFC of Latin America

El Pollo Campero
Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist

I knew a Pollo Campero franchise had opened near my childhood home in Falls Church, Virginia the minute I smelled that delectable citrus and oregano-infused fried chicken from nearly a quarter-mile away. Half of my neighborhood showed up there the next day, and security guards were dispatched to help with crowd control. 

Pollo Campero, which translates as “country chicken,” is the world’s largest Latin American chicken chain and boasts a dedicated cult following. When it first opened in Guatemala in the 1970s, its signature fried chicken spread like wildfire across the Central American region.

Before Pollo Campero went stateside, people would carry as much chicken as TSA-possible on planes from Central American to the US. El Salvador’s Aeropuerto Internacional Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero even has a Pollo Campero just so fans can carry on as much as they can hold on board. Fan Joey Alzamora’s family would send him Pollo Campero by way of Encomiendas, Guatemala. They would buy a box of chicken, seal it up real tight, freeze it and send it all the same day. He says he was “born with Pollo Campero in my vocabulary.”

You may be thinking, “Great, another fried chicken chain to fuel America’s obsession.’’ But once you try Pollo Campero, it’s easy to understand why people go crazy over a two-piece combo box with yuca fries, tortillas, beans, and platanitos.

First of all, it is Action Bronson delicious. The chicken skin is perfectly spiced and crispy. If Pollo Campero sold buckets of fried chicken skin alone, there would be a market for it. But also, the meat is juicy, juicy, juicy. The Campero Beans, which are slow-cooked with chorizo, jalapeños, tomatoes, and onions, are fuego. I like to dip my yuca fries in them.

El Pollo Campero
Pollo Campero is the world’s largest Latin American chicken chain, boasting a cult based around its fried chicken and sides like Campero Beans. | Pollo Campero

Thanks to Pollo Campero’s crossover appeal, it’s a Central-American cultural phenomenon to be reckoned with. I can easily see it influencing the greater culinary landscape in the US to the point where it gets woven into the very fabric of what we call American food.  

How big is Pollo Campero in the US? There were lines around the block for the LA opening back in 2002. I don’t know another piece of chicken that attracts that level of Dominique- Ansel-cronut-inducing frenzy from people. They’ve even dared to open a new franchise in Nashville, hot chicken’s home turf. İSinvergüenza!

It’s not just homesick Central Americans who stan for Pollo Campero. You’ll also see a fair number of non-Hispanic diners there, too. Kris Daswani, part-owner of a Dallas, Texas Pollo Campero, gets a lot of Anglo-Americans during lunch. He says they go for the fried chicken or Camperitos (their version of nuggets). Many of these crossover customers have become regulars. The menu is familiar enough to US palates to be approachable, while also inviting curiosity about the Central-American items like horchata (a sweetened beverage made from rice), fries made from yuca, guava barbecue empanadas and tamarindo ketchup. 

That crossover appeal makes sense, considering the place Latin flavors hold in American cuisine. “Certainly the Latin American influence has spread, especially in the southern United States, to the point where some dishes are now considered part of the pantheon of 'Southern' cooking,” says Nashville-based food writer and hot chicken expert Timothy Davis, author of the definitive hot chicken Bible, The Hot Chicken Cookbook: The Fiery History & Red-Hot Recipes of Nashville’s Beloved Bird.

Davis cites Latin-American foods that have become integrated into Southern cuisine, like tamales, and jalapenos (especially in cornbread), and the liberal use of peppers and hot sauces. Both traditions embrace beans and rice, barbacoa/barbecue, pastor/pulled pork, and the use of tripe, tongue, and other offal. 

“My parents live in a heavy agricultural area of North Carolina, and there are two types of restaurants there: Mexican/Guatemalan/Latin American and American Southern,” says Davis. “Both are what you might call country cooking.”

Pollo Campero
Items like Camperitos nuggets are approachable to US palate while also inviting curiosity about the Central American items | El Pollo Campero

That country cooking tastes like home for a lot of Pollo Campero diners. Walk into a Pollo Campero just about anywhere, and you’ll see a lot of Latino families and solo diners waxing nostalgic. And while some PCFs (Pollo Campero Fans) argue that the chicken tastes better eaten in Central-America, that connection to home seems to surpass simulacrum of taste.

“It’s the culture of it, the memories of my family and being in Guatemala that make me miss or crave [Pollo Campero],” says Alamorza. “It’s about being connected to family.”

But even if you’re not even remotely Central American, this fried chicken has a way of defying culinary borders and hitting you in a deep emotional place. Just ask Chicago-based Filipina Natalia Roxas. “Pollo Campero is attractive to me because of the familiarity of the flavors to the Philippines,” she says. “That’s why I hit it up.” 
 

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Marisel Salazar is food and travel writer based in New York City. She comes to NYC by way of Panama, Hawaii, Japan, D.C., and Madrid. Everything but ketchup please. Follow her on Instagram.