Chick Fight: Popeye's vs. Pollo Campero

Toque to Toque has made strides this year, delving into various cultures and cuisines. Some of our favorites included the mussel challenge, the soup dumpling debacle and the souffle cook-off where we met a former president.

A chef friend recently told me that we shouldn't call this Toque to Toque since we do not always challenge serious cuisine. I counter that all cuisine is important or it wouldn't exist.

There is a reason why the good Colonel Sanders is known worldwide, and it's not for his sassy good looks and haute couture. Fast food has its place in society. For some it is a way of life. For others it might be a chance encounter on the dash.

I like to think that readers of a food blog might be in the latter category. But interestingly enough, another chef told me recently that he is an avid junk food junky, making late-night pit stops into Jack in the Box and Taco Cabana after preparing high-end cuisine for his clientele all evening -- he and his learned palate, tasting foie and butter enriched sauces all evening, stooping to a double taco deal for a buck at 2 a.m.

All things being told, I appreciate the Cabana breakfast taco when I can find one. I imagine the little tortilla making machine stamping out the frozen balls of dough into the hot and supple vessels that temporarily store my steaming scrambled eggs and chorizo. The strong taste of baking soda from the tortilla and the buttery huevos haunt me even as I write these words.

Fast food does indeed have its place in our society. At least it does today for our Toque to Toque challenge, one we will call the Chicken Warfare: Popeye's Chicken vs. Pollo Campero.

The idea for this challenge hit me as I was driving down Preston, north towards the Bush. Having two fast food chicken stores awkwardly squawking in an area didn't make much sense to me at the moment, but as I pulled in to the competing parking lots -- with traffic buzzing past me at nearly 5 p.m. -- of course I remembered the obvious: Fried chicken is the perfect take-out for a family. While heading home after work, for a paltry sum you can get all you need to feed your tribe. Chicken, mashed potatoes and perhaps tortillas if you choose the chicken shack with the Latin flare.

I first pulled into Popeye's. (I am a fan of their red beans and rice. I am not a vegetarian, but I am pretty sure that the bean and rice combination makes for a complete protein, and it's a often a complete meal for me.)

Ambling up to the counter, I scan and order a double-fisted chicken deal that included a side and a biscuit. The side would, of course, be the red beans and rice.

Moments later my number is called out through the loud speaker. Odd since I was standing in front of the person calling the number, and well, I was the only person in the entire restaurant. But I happily snatched up my spicy dark meat combo and aimed towards a table.

The chicken was steaming hot, so I allowed a cooling off period as I nibbled at my red beans and poked around at my biscuit. They supplied a honey substitute that was mainly made up of high fructose corn syrup. This is the nasty stuff that can be found in most every product manufactured. Another name for HFCS is maize syrup. If I was on the marketing team of these types of products, I would use the maize syrup tag instead. Sounds so natural and good for you.

Finally laying into the chicken, I take an eye-squirting bite of the chicken and my eyes pop wide. I am truly delighted. This is spicy and really good. The crispy outer crust barely contains the juicy dark meat , and dribbles of its soppy wonderment drip down my hand, searing my flesh along the way.

Knowing I have a competitor awaiting, I box up my stash of chicken for a later tryst and amble over to Campero for another meeting with a bird.

Ordering the same two-chicken combo, I am encouraged to try the Campero beans, but instead I choose the black beans and rice since it was a close cousin to the red beans I just inhaled.

My plate was offered almost immediately, but with a surprise third piece of free chicken. Can I get a hallelujah?

This is not the typical deep -fried yard bird that I was expecting, but then Pollo Campero isn't the usual fried-chicken outlet. These guys come from Guatemala, which must be the fried-chicken capital of South America. Instead of fried chicken, it has that crispy broasted mouth-feel. Broasting is a technique in which you fry using a pressure cooker. This results in a thinner coating that seems natural and has more of a chicken flavor and more home-cooked appeal. This method is also supposed to use less fat.

The crust is crispy, and the meat juicy and flavorful. The black bean side is pretty damned incredible too, and I love the addition of the corn tortillas. Pollo Campero also makes a ration of sauces like you might find at a Mexican fast food chain, but these sauces are homey and off-the-chain incredible. I especially enjoyed the spicy tomatillo sauce.

I shredded some of the chicken and added a little black bean to make myself a little pollo taco.

The two fast-food chicken entries in Toque history provided an excellent battle. Both are worthy adversaries, and that is probably why they are planted so close together on Preston during rush hour traffic. As to the winner-winner of this chicken dinner, I will run with the Pollo Campero if for no other reason than its unusual take on the traditional fast-food chicken meal. Both were worthy of this win, but the broasting is flavorful and the sides Pollo Campero offered were unusual and inviting.

Maybe next week we will visit something more high-brow if I can talk George Bush into driving.

Pollo Campero 19160 Preston Rd, Dallas 972-867-9400

Popeye's Chicken 19304 Preston Road, Dallas 972-599-0973

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