If you're not one of the bold adventurers who ply the north area on the lookout for migratory taco trucks, emerging elements of the culinary fringe, and all things ethnic, diverse, and slightly off the edge of typical suburban fare, then it's highly unlikely that you've stumbled upon Pollo Tropical (the locally owned one, not the chain found in other parts of the country). Even if you're a fan of steamy papusas from Centro Americano and think that Sunday afternoons should be reserved for trips to Ashley Phosphate to sample lamb barbacoa and menudo at Los Parados, or specialize in knowing where to find the best tripe and tongue tacos in town, you still may have missed out on the secrets of Pollo Tropical.
It will haunt your next trip down Dorchester Road, taunting you from the street, its windows covered in cartoonish murals of umbrella-clad chickens singing in the rain, those same chickens roasting a golden brown the next pane over. Closing in, you can smell the charcoal singe of a dozen marinated chickens hacked in half and beautifully charred over an open fire. And there, next to a Mexican carniceria that boils its own lard, offers fresh ceviche out of an industrial-sized bucket, and serves up crispy-fried cicharron by the pound, stands the holy grail of Holy City chicken, sandwiched in a lonely, decaying strip mall alongside a piercing shop, a western wear store hawking multi-colored boots, and a revivalist church operation. Just look for the Church's fried chicken out front and drive to the back where the real fowl can be found.
If the place was well lit, it might appear underwhelming. After all, it's a normal strip mall space with a register where you pay for your food, a couple of gumball machines, and a semi-open kitchen with a counter to accept the outgoing orders. But in the dim light, when the sound of salsa beats from the dance floor in the back heat up on a Saturday night and the flickering flames from the natural charcoal grill wash the space with an infernal glow, the magic of Pollo Tropical is fully revealed.
In a culinary age ruled by premium dry-aged slabs of red meat and the lure of local vegetables, preferably grown in some arcane biodynamic sequence, the idea of mass-produced chickens swathed with spices from south of the border and served up in a marginal space with rickety tables seems déclassé. But the Pollo Tropical represents the best of what's new and emerging in Charleston. Platters the size of small buffets overflow with chicken and ribs, plantains, rice and beans. These are studies in excess, with a heated nip and a soulful twang that make it hard to not clean your plate. This is street food, indoors, with cold beer and a rubber chicken hanging outside the kitchen's pick up window that gets squeaked when your order's up.
The fact that they speak little English, or that the floor isn't as clean as a surgical ward, only intensifies the allure. This tropical chicken can soothe your soul.
I'm not sure what they soak it in, or even the formulation of the spices dusted on top, but when it emerges from the grill, slightly blackened in spots, peppered with hot red chili flakes and kissed with the cook's love, you'll become an instant believer. Tear into half a bird and you'll find a moist interior with steam that engulfs the plate and notes of spice that head skyward. You'll want to alternate bites with crispy fried plantains (called tostones) or some fried yucca, if only to slow the inevitable progression of heat from the supplied sauces, which moves from a pleasant warmth to a cascading endorphin rush. Top your bird with some of Matouk's Calypso sauce at the table, and you'll need a second order of those plantains, even though they're as big as dessert plates. You'll also need a steady supply of cold beer.
Of course, they serve other things at the Tropical. The flanken beef ribs are an unctuous dream, slow braised and falling from the bone, and the pork ribs almost drip into your mouth like liquid meat. Grab a rib/chicken platter for $10.99 and go to town. They offer a section of Columbian food, headlined by the gut-busting Bandeja Paisa ($11.50), a massive plate of rice, beans, beef, sausage, cicharron, two fried eggs, sweet plantains, and slices of avocado. And the various incarnations of rice, beans, and combinations thereof are as good as you'll find at any ethnic enclave from here to Goose Creek – the black beans are divine. But in the end, it's the chicken that rules the roost.
And to sit in Pollo Tropical among the regulars is to be indoctrinated into a sort of club. Other gringos will wink your way and smile through spice soaked lips. Barring a subsequent offer of a little salsa dancing or other flirtatious advance, you'll know that they're thinking the same thing as yourself: "Damn, this place is good." You can smile back and shake your head with that knowing expression that you've both found a place for those in the culinary know — for a little while at least — because the secret of Pollo Tropical is out.