[Photograph above: Karla Vasquez; Process photographs: Tim Chin]
The last time that my mom flew back from El Savador, I greeted her at LAX with an excited “Hi, Ma!” She responded with an urgent, “El Pollo Campero is in that maleta (suitcase).”
Pollo Campero is a food chain that originated in Guatemala, but has since become a cultural icon throughout Central America, including my family’s native El Salvador. Their signature dish is delicious and succulent fried chicken that’s layered with spices, perfect when paired with tortillas, french fries, a dinner roll, or—a more appropriate Central American side dish—yuca fries.
Our airport scene is more or less how it goes every time, my mother arriving with an entire piece of carry-on luggage meticulously packed with boxes of Pollo Campero fried chicken. So what if it isn’t crispy? It’s a taste of home that she’s tenderly transported back to us in the States. Even after the long journey, the flavor is still mouthwateringly savory, with a pronounced pepperiness that tickles the nose.
These days, you’ll find Pollo Campero in a number of cities in the US, but with travel limited—both domestically and internationally—it seemed high time to recreate this dish in the comfort and safety of my own kitchen. It took me a while to recreate the dredging’s specific spice profile, but this version, which includes both white and black pepper, cumin, curry powder, chile pepper, and more, hits closest to my sense memories. Just as important: a small dose of MSG, required for its savory, umami kick. Of course you can leave it out, if desired, but the chicken won’t quite taste like home without it.
Why It Works
- Shallow-frying the chicken ensures crispy, golden brown pieces all over without the amount of oil required for full deep frying.
- A small dose of MSG gives the chicken the savory flavor of the original.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- To Brine the Chicken:
- 5 cups (1.2L) water
- 1/2 cup (3 ounces; 85g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons red chile flakes
- 10 bone-in chicken pieces (about 4 pounds/1.8kg total), preferably drumsticks and thighs
- For the Flour Dredge:
- 2 cups (9 ounces; 255g) all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (3/4 ounce; 20g) seasoning salt, such as Lawry’s
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground white pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 1/2 teaspoons MSG
- 3/4 teaspoon cayenne
- To Fry:
- Vegetable or other neutral oil, for frying (about 4 cups/4L)
To Brine the Chicken: In a very large mixing bowl or vessel, stir together water, salt, black pepper, and red chile flakes until salt is dissolved.
Add chicken, making sure it is submerged in the brine. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least 4 and up to 12 hours.
For the Flour Dredge: In a medium bowl, whisk together seasoning salt, flour, black pepper, white pepper, cumin, curry powder, paprika, MSG, and cayenne.
Fit a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Working with one piece of chicken at a time, lift chicken from brine and dip in the flour mixture to completely coat, using fingers to press the flour coating onto every nook and cranny.
Place the dredged chicken on rack and repeat with the remaining chicken pieces.
To Fry: Line a second baking sheet with a wire rack for the finished fried chicken. Fill a large cast iron skillet with about 1 inch oil and heat to 350°F (175°C) over medium-high heat. Working in batches and being careful not to overcrowd the skillet, fry chicken, turning once, until golden brown all over and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center (but not touching the bone) registers 150°F (65°C) for white meat and 165°F (75°C) for dark, about 15 minutes per batch (note that frying times can vary depending on the size and shape of the chicken pieces).
Transfer fried chicken to the prepared rack and let cool at least 5 minutes before serving. Return oil to 350°F (175°C) and repeat with remaining chicken.
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