Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Feb. 27
At Uncle's in TJ: Smoke signals!
When the coals are glowing at Pollos El Tio, the whole neighborhood knows Oscar's Sinaloa chicken is on its way
The smoke wafts past your nose. The sabroso smell. Then you spot the chimney, shooting white puffs like the Vatican announcing a new Pope.
I'm up in Tijuana's Colonia Libertad. This community is like a small town in its own right. It's just across the line, but feels more like interior Mexico than a lot of Tijuana.
The big smoke 's coming from this little place with a sign outside that says "Pollos a la Diabla." And right behind, a wicked glowing-coal grill with maybe 2 dozen chickens laid out and crackling away.
Turns out it's actually called Pollos El Tio (Avenida Aquiles Serdán 11261, between 9th and 10th streets in Colonia Libertad, about half a mile from the border crossing. 011.52.664.682-49-93). Guess you might call it "Uncle's Chicken."
Whatever you call it, OMG. That overpowering aroma. Have to head inside. This is about noon. Early for Mexican lunchtime. So it's empty, but you can tell from the grilling going on that they're expecting a crowd. Inside, a family, kids, a mom, a grandmom are all chatting and working away at a table. Two guys work the chicken grilling rack.
Me, I'm staring at the yellow wall on the left. They list a whole bunch of different "paquetes" of chicken. Each comes with chiles, grilled onion, tortillas, salsa and two "complementos." That means you choose from a list of rice soup, beans from the olla, a kind of macaroni salad, and of course tortillas and salsa.
The main guy, Oscar Osuna, asks which one of the five "paquetes" that I want. They range from #1, two whole chickens with all the "complementos" (180 pesos, say $14) to #5, a quarter chicken with two complementos (38 pesos, say $2.80).
That's the one I go for. Off comes a chicken from the grill...
...Out comes the cleaver. Chop chop chop!
I get a leg and a big chunk of breast. He adds a blackened jalapeño chile and a half-onion wrapped in foil. His young-looking mom, María, ladles the beans from the olla, and adds a pot of the pasta salad.
Oscar's grandma Jovita brings me a box of cloth-wrapped steaming-hot corn tortillas, and a black molcajete brimming with red salsa.
Believe me, the quarter-chicken is plenty. By the time I've gotten through that breast I'm full. But I save the best for last. The leg. It has all the spicy, burned taste that I first smelled in the smoke. Dee-lish.
"We came up from Guadalajara," says Jovita. "All we put on the chicken is salt, pimiento, pepper, and love."
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