With good timing you can smell it from blocks away. Pollo al carbon, when cooked properly in the Sinaloan style, emits a heady primordial smoke layered with mesquite wood, schmaltz and an alchemical array of charring spices. This airborne scent is all the advertising that good al carbon needs.
For years a yellow-painted, grease-splattered, food truck with the comically espanglish signage “El Chiken” monopolized the true mesquite grilled chicken game here in Albuquerque. Alas, this gem is long gone but has found a worthy successor in Rey del Pollo.
The new spot for Sinaloan chicken is a humble storefront on the East side of the Plaza Bonita shopping center. It is COVID-ready: Day-glo signage in our state’s two primary tongues requires face coverings, and inside a hanging square of plexi-glass in front of the register protects both customers and staff. Still, I was greeted with a friendly, “Buenas tardes.” (The staff is friendly, but none are fluent in English. A mix of my kitchen espanglish and the server speaking at 70 percent speed was appreciated on both sides.)
The menu is simple enough; but even though I’ve been here a number of times over the last year, I inquired as to the specialties of the house. The friendly counter clerk Mariam assured me that it is all special. “Clearly the chicken is number one, but we also sell many burgers and flautas. People love it all.” (Close quote as translated from the original.)
I ordered half a chicken (the “Medio Pollo Asado”), which comes with corn tortillas, pickled purple onions, salsa casera, a quesadilla, refried beans … and a baked potato stuffed with cheese(!)—all for $12. I also threw on a side of their salsa enchilada. In pandemic-style, I carted the order across the parking lot and set up the spread on the hood of my car, cursing myself somewhat for not biking so I could enjoy a ballena de Pacifico (a liter of Mexican beer available at Casa Liquors right across the street) with the meal. Beerless, I dug in. Between bites I scrawled field notes into my journal, now somewhat smeared with grease.
A proper pollo al carbon, unlike the more popular rostizado (rotisserie) and KFC (a catch-all for fried chicken in much of Mexico) remains moist but not greasy: As the chicken cooks the grease burns off, hits the coals and re-penetrates the meat through the smoke, intensifying the flavor. One bite and I was convinced. The Rey del Pollo drumstick was la neta—the truth. The mesquite coals had worked their magic.
Next, I started putting together my first taco—and discovered that the first tortilla on the stack was actually a quesadilla. The quesillo had melded the two tortillas in perfect measure. A taco combining chicken with the lard-laden refried beans and some of their fearsome salsa enchilada delivered waves of smoky, full-flavored pleasure. I finished the bulging taco off in three bites. A note about this salsa: It is an add-on, but one you can’t miss out on. I would hold off on getting your chicken smothered with it, though that is on offer, because the salsa will obscure the flavor and texture of the mesquite-crisped skin. But as a side condiment, this smoky, fiery, deep-mahogany blend of chiles secos is both brutalizing and elating. I reckon you will have plenty leftover and hopefully will enjoy trying to bring about fit pairings while rummaging through your fridge or pantry as much as I have.This brings us to the baked potato. While its presence as a side had me a bit mystified (Can I recall ever getting a cheese-laden papa asada with pollo al carbon in Sinaloa … or anywhere else in MX for that matter? That’s a resounding “No”) … I’m not mad at it. As if there was any doubt that Rey del Pollo will deliver full panza-satisfaction, this gratuitous side drives it home.