Hey hey! Holiday season’s here and da geese are getting fat, but I’m here for chicken necks, my yuletide snack.
So good to be in TJ again. I know. Not the best timing. But it’s been so long, TJ’s still a breath of fresh air.
I’m climbing up the slope of Constitution Avenue. Entering the Red Zone. The bars are starting. The small hotels are starting. The women standing on corners are starting. Me, I’m looking for one place: KFB. Kentucky Fried Buches.
Buches? Chicken crop. The crop is the lower section of the neck. It holds food for digestion. But these buches ain’t that. We’re talking strictly necks here. “People like KFC just threw chicken necks away,” the owner told me last time, “until we came along.”
So looking, looking. Ladies of the night put a hand on your arm, until you ask them, “Kentucky Fried Buches?”
“Three doors up,” says this gal.
Aha. The herby deep-fried chicken smell comes first, then on the left, yes! A sign outside. “Desde 1963,” it says. “La tradición continua.”
It’s a relief, because someone was saying these guys had closed. But no, here it is, bright neon lighting, red and white vertical striped walls, bile green skirting, and one gal in a gray “Guess 92” hoodie, Elizabeth, manning the cash register.
“Orden $70 Pesos, 1/2 orden, $50 pesos,” says a hand-written sign. That’s pretty much the menu. It’s just a piece of bright green paper Scotch-taped to the wall. “Sodas, $15 pesos; extra salsa, $10 pesos.”
That’s it. Full order, at, say, 20 pesos to the dollar, is going to be $3.50, half order $2.50, sodas 75 cents, extra salsa, 50 cents.
Guy sitting at one of the tile-topped tables gnaws away at a neck.
“Rico?” I ask.
He nods, gives a thumb up, and chews his way around his buche like it’s a corn-on-the cob. I ask Elizabeth for a “medio orden” and a Coke. Sixty-five pesos, $3.25.
Elizabeth portions out six necks, still smokin’ and dripping from the deep-fry lard. She adds a great lake of the house salsa, and uncaps a bottle of Mexican Coke.
I chomp in. Yes, worried as to the “necky” taste. But the spices it has been peppered with for hours, Elizabeth says, do the job. Oh boy. Deep-fry lard, and beautifully crispy skin. It’s got umami. When you learn to kinda nibble off the skin and not go much deeper, you’ve found what you’ve come for. Plus, the salsa is all fresh-cut veggies. Herbal taste makes a difference.
Time I came before, the guy told me how much more of each animal Mexican chefs include in their repertoire. “Just using cabeza, lengua in tacos, and here making necks a delicacy. We couldn’t afford not to eat everything our animals had to offer. Chicken necks are very cheap. And prices we paid, we could sell real cheap.”
Elizabeth says all their necks are now from Mexican chickens.
I chomp in and watch the passing parade. A flower girl labors uphill with her bundle of flower bouquets. A shoeshine man heads downhill with his box. The two ladies of the night stand like praetorian guards on either side of the entrance, shifting from one heel to the other. An old guy who obviously can’t afford their rates comes up and asks for a hug.
Even a half-plate of these buches is filling. And with beans, I could fill right out. Except I’m also thinking of another delicious joint, just up the road, at 1st Street, Calle Primera. I head over from Constitution. Ah. Almost next to a bar where mariachis store their instruments, I find the place I’m looking for, where the guys serve up everything chicken but chicken necks — for a song. “Miracle Chick.” Pollo Milagroso. The place is open 24/7, and when I come past, its little on-street counter is packed.
I mean, you can hear these guys before you can smell their chicken frying. Alfredo and Johnny. Johnny’s the cook. Been here 15 years. “Two chicken breasts, salad!” he shouts. “Who ordered this?” He holds the plate over the splash screen to show the front counter customers.
By now it’s maybe six. Dark. Chilly. Night clubs and bars are cranking up. Pollo Milagroso is nice and toasty, even though it’s outside, because of the open fat baths frying chicken.
There’s just something about it. Full of life, smells, and noise. “Chiapas?” this woman is saying. “Chiapas is called Chiapas because Chia shrubs grow there.”
I sit down on the only spare stool. “Menu?” I say to Alfredo. “It’s all the same, my friend,” he says. “A chunk of whatever chicken part, 42 pesos, with or without beans and salad. And 15 for a Coke ($2.10 plus 75 cents).”
So I ask for just a chunk of chicken. No fixin’s. He sends over a plate. Yum yum. Totally wicked. Steaming hot. Crunch, chew, guzzle, chew fat. Meantime Johnny’s never stopping. “Alfredo! Who had the thighs! Frijoles!”
“We do 400 chickens every day,” he says later.
“Wow,” I say. “That means, uh, 12,000 chickens a month, 144,000 chickens a year! All in this little place.”
He says it has been open 24/7 for 50 years. “Fifty years! How many chickens is that?”
D’aagh. Quick calc. “Uh, five million, more. Folks sitting around here have gone through five million chickens since you opened.”
“A lot of chickens,” says Alfredo.
Up in Plaza Cecilia a little man with a big voice and big speakers launches into Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”
Guess the season ’tis upon us. Take it away, Jose!
- The Place: Kentucky Fried Buches, 670 Avenida Constitución, Tijuana, 011.52.664.118-5766
- Hours: 12pm – 12am, daily (till 1am Saturday); Wednesdays closed
- Prices: Full order of chicken necks, 70 pesos (say, $3.50); 1/2 order, 50 pesos ($2.50)
- The Place: Pollo Milagroso, 8150 Calle Primera (1st Street), Tijuana, 011.52.664.557-0372
- Simplest access: taxi, Uber, or walk from border
- Transport from San Diego to border: Trolley Blue Line, or bus 906, 907
- Nearest Bus, Trolley Stop: San Ysidro Transit Center