Arriving at a party fashionably late is a statement. You enter the fracas at the peak of activity when everyone is either warmed up, socially lubricated, or both, and anyone wondering if you were ever going to show up is super excited that you did. But arriving late to a war and showing up mid-battle? That’s more than a little confounding.
While there have been straggling contenders entering the Chicken Sandwich Wars for years now, declaring, sometimes with a trademark, that the “War Ain’t Over Yet™”, we’ve arrived at a point where we pretty much know who’s playing, right? Those who sat out the first round let the bigger brands fight it out amongst themselves as they quietly worked on their own recipes. But as Q1 2022 signaled a shift toward The Spicy Years, smaller chains entered the fray.
We now have another chicken company to consider as it enters its name into the jousting lists this summer: Pollo Campero.
For those not familiar, this Dallas-based, Guatemalan-founded chain offers a uniquely different take on chicken. Like its competitors, Pollo Campero boasts hand-breaded fried chicken. Unlike its competitors, it also has a mean grilled chicken that’s citrusy in profile. In either form, the chicken is slow-marinated using a distinctly savory Latin blend of herbs and spices that jumps out against the Southern-style brands that have a firmer foothold in the United States.
The chain also has a loyal Latin American customer base. Like, obviously, since it’s the top fried chicken brand in that part of the world. But so much so that it’s a cultural “thing” for those with Central American roots to fly an order of chicken to family when they visit—a phenomenon the brand recognized and encouraged to the extent that its international airport locations in Guatemala and El Salvador sell chicken for customers to carry on their flights. Before establishing locations in the U.S. in 2002, the chain estimates that it used to send over 3 million orders per year flying to the States from those gateways.
Given all this, one could safely assume that Pollo Campero is pretty damn good and true to Latin flavors.
But for all its deliciousness, Pollo Campero has a history of being a little late to the party here in the States. It didn’t introduce a chicken sandwich to the menu until February 2021, nearly two whole years after Popeyes formally declared war in August 2019 (and in one fell swoop negated the existence of all premium chicken fillet sandwiches that came before it).
Now, a year and a half later, the chain is creeping up slow… but coming in (allegedly) hot. Across 84 U.S. locations, a fraction of its 400 worldwide, Pollo Campero has released a spicy chicken sandwich of its own.
According to the official press release, “Pollo Campero has upped the ante” with a sammie that features a “zesty Habanero Mayo, fried or grilled all-white meat chicken fillet, and three sweet pickles on a buttered brioche bun.” Luis Javier Rodas, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer for the brand, has promised that it “packs a punch” and that the menu item has “raised the bar on what fans can expect.”
But we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Spicy chicken sandwiches don’t always deliver on the heat they promise. While the Arby’s Diablo Dare chicken sandwich promised a world of glorious, delicious pain, it only achieved impressive levels of spice by fast food’s abysmal standards; otherwise, it contained as much hyperbole as it did BBQ sauce.
However, since Pollo Campero originates from a culture that is not as spice-averse as the US, I walked into my Marietta, Georgia location with high hopes. Is this sandwich destined to be a sleeper hit? Were its three years of R&D put to good use, or would the Pollo Campero Spicy Chicken Sandwich just amount to more noise in an increasingly cacophonous chicken sandwich market?
I ordered both the grilled and fried version, because, you know, science. To keep a neutral palate, I restrained myself from adding on any appealingly Latin American sides, like fluffy yuca fries, beans with chorizo and poblanos, fried sweet plantains, and a savory corn salad studded with crunchy pepitas.
The fried chicken sandwiches are made to order, so I had a five-minute wait, but that only made me more excited about trying it. KFC and Popeyes fry their breast fillets fresh, too, and we all know those two don’t play.
When I opened their cardboard boxes, I found that both sandwiches were missing the habanero mayo that was the 20-cent differentiator between the regular chicken sandwich and this new much-hyped version. I went back in to explain, and the employees offered me a side of sauce—but in order to receive the authentic ratio of sauce to sandwich, I requested that they apply it directly to the sandwich the way they normally would.
Newly sauced prizes in hand, I opened them up again at home … and had myself a Karen moment. The sandwiches were “holy shit” overflowing with so much sauce that I was pretty sure that it was a fast food spite move for sending the sandwiches back. The chicken, previously naked but for the three pickles, was drowning in a thick, gloppy pool of orange to the point that I felt compelled to call the store to find out if my science had been compromised.
As a gentle lead-in, I asked if the sauce was supposed to be on both sides of the bun. According to the manager, yes! She then hot-potatoed the phone over to her nephew, who’d taken my order; he laughed with me and assured me that, no, this wasn’t because I had been annoying—he had reacted the same way when the corporate trainer showed them how it was supposed to be done.
So it seems that your options for chicken sandwich at Pollo Campero are no sauce at all or all the sauce. Okay, then.
This ended up being a totally moot point though, because damn, does that sauce slap. Particularly with the grilled version, I sopped up the extra with the lightly toasted, barely buttered bun, which had gotten a nice little steam bath and softened ever so slightly during transit.
The bun itself wasn’t much to speak of, though. It’s marketed as brioche, but isn’t every bun advertised that way these days? It’s shiny in a brioche-adjacent way, but the texture is airy with a dry crumb, more like a cheapo white enriched bun than a dense premium bun. It wasn’t unpleasant. Just unremarkable.
The lackluster bread is fine, because the rest of the sandwich fought like Targaryens for the spotlight, each element flashier than the last. First, there was that magical mayo, which was much more a vehicle for garlic than it was any kind of hot sauce. As in, there were big chunks of minced fresh raw garlic heavily studding the festive-looking slather. And I was very, very much here for it. Give me all the garlic always. Rich, creamy, sweet, and complex, I couldn’t pick out its individual notes, but I could plainly detect the Latin beat of its spices.
Next were the pickles—thick-cut sweet pickles, as opposed to tangy sour ones, a nice complement to the mayo and a good counter against allium acid. And both the sauce and the pickles enhanced the grilled and the fried chicken sandwich in different ways.
The fried version had a nice, crackling crisp to it, breading wrapped like a gorgeous golden armor around a bigger-than-the-bun cut of juicy white meat chicken. The signature spices in the breading were clearly accounted for, with a hint of adobo, clear black pepper notes, and discernible cumin, curry, and paprika. The rich sauce clung well to the crags, the oil that soaked into the bun made it taste more buttery, and the sweet pickles were refreshing against the heaviness of all of this.
Against the grilled chicken, the pickles and sauce were necessary moist-makers. This chicken was a little on the dry side and didn’t fill up the entire bun, but it was overall more chicken-y tasting than its fried counterpart, and the “citrus Peruvian spice” bath it sits in before grilling comes through loud and clear. I could plainly taste the lime and the herbs that were visibly sealed and pressed into the meat during cooking.
In all, these sauced-up sammies are damn good. Pollo Campero understood the assignment, adhering to the now-classic formula of chicken + “buttered brioche” + pickles + special sauce. But it did so way more creatively than any other chain yet, with unique spins on each component that pack a bigger punch than nearly all of the other contenders that the current leaders have left limping on the battlefield. It also has fewer calories, weighing in at 554 (grilled, surprisingly) and 424 calories (fried).
Well … kind of? Technically?
Neither are very spicy in the “hot” sense, despite the habanero headliner. The chicken by this chain is always going to harbor a subtle heat—that’s a given. In sandwich form, the heat slides in like a DM on the back of sweet and creamy elements, creeping up as slowly as it took Pollo Campero to enter the Fast Food Chicken Sandwich Wars in the first place. By the time I was done with both sandwiches, I’d only needed two gulps of water, and that was just because the grilled chicken started feeling dry, not because there was any fire to quench. There was a little tingling on the edges of my lips and my breath was certainly hot through the garlic, but I’m gonna give it a “nah” for numbing and a “shrug” on the Scoville scale.
On the other hand, both are flavor explosions, bursting with spices, if not spiciness. I know some folks confuse overly exuberant, overwhelming taste sensations with heat—these sandwiches are not for them. Generally, the Spicy Chicken Sandwich in either form is a party in your mouth for damn sure, with flavors popping off left and right in such quick succession that they’re impossible to place.
With this US-only release, maybe 2022 is the year patterns change. Maybe instead of stowing Pollo Campero in the overhead bin on a flight to the States, Americans will be bringing it abroad on their own travels. A little taste of what is now North American tradition: a barnyard battle for chicken on a bun.