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El Papa de los Pollitos - Detroit MI

goatgolfer May 22, 2011 11:01 AM

Driving on Vernor with the windows down and this charcoal/chicken smoke aroma hits me very pleasantly. Instant drooling.

Pull in to El Papa de los Pollitos (4047 W. Vernor Hwy, Detroit, MI) and there is a massive charcoal grill covered with marinated/sauced chickens and an experienced pitmaster running the show. Go inside and Jenny (cashier/waitress/translator) confirms the specialty of the house is grilled chicken. $6 with one side and a whole with two sides $11. Order the 1/2 with an extra of pintos and 5 mins later magic appears. Two medium containers of very nice rice and pintos with mini-franks that are very good and not the pudding bean variety.

The chicken has been sauced 3-4 times during cooking and then again just before serving. I have tried for years to get my sauce that deep into the flesh and they have achieved it. The hot sauce(not really pico de gallo but rather hot sauce) is home made and really complements the chicken spicing. It is very layered without the overpowering cumin effect and the charcoal smoke is prominent. Jenny says they have a different hot sauce for each type of taco/dish/preparation.

I devour the bird and most of the sides and have to get another 1/2 to go.

They also have tacos (usual suspects) and the menu is whatever Mama has going that day.

The interior is rustic cafeteria but was clean if not polished. There are about 15 4- person booths. They said most of their business was takeout and I saw about 10 chickens go out in my 20 minutes at lunch time.

It's just three people, Jenny, Mama and Armando (pitmaster) so they are only open Tue-Sun and when the biz stops they stop but nice weather lunch or dinner should be no problem. Phone no. is 313 729-0259 to confirm opening and place your order in advance so they hold some bird for you. If they have to cook it from scratch, it's 45 mins.

No alcohol and the private parking holds about 10 cars. I wouldn't call it easily accessible for the disabled. VERY friendly people so if your brown bag had a cervesa in it I don't think anyone would notice.

  1. b
    boagman May 22, 2011 11:59 AM

    Sounds quite good, but also sounds like a little too far to drive for me from Waterford, for, well...chicken. Still, if I'm down that way, that does sound quite inviting!

    1 Reply
    1. re: boagman
      goatgolfer May 25, 2011 02:43 PM

      Don't you think there must be a Northern Oakland county simile to the SW Detroit Chicken mafia? I know it's not exacty watertucky but we have to do a bit more recon on this. Even Pontiac would be better for me too.

    2. JanPrimus May 22, 2011 01:03 PM

      I think I know one spot I will hit up next weekend between raving!

      3 Replies
      1. re: JanPrimus
        goatgolfer May 22, 2011 01:40 PM

        A 1/2 chicken no sides is $5. Way better than a Pizza/Pizza! Take some wet wipes, you will need a field shower when you are done.

        1. re: JanPrimus
          VTB May 22, 2011 02:04 PM

          JP, Do your grandchildren know you go raving, and if so, are they jealous, like me?

          PS--nice write-up GG, thx. Hope I get a chance to go some time.

          1. re: VTB
            JanPrimus May 22, 2011 02:22 PM

            VTB....Even my dad likes to go to the Raves....Better living through Chemistry!

            You are still invited to go.... :)

        2. m
          moose734 May 22, 2011 09:17 PM

          I wonder if this chicken is better than the ones at Taqueria el Rey. Sounds like a chicken taste off is in order.

          4 Replies
          1. re: moose734
            goatgolfer May 23, 2011 05:15 AM

            What? A drive by challenge? C'mon Moose you need to write a review to warn the troops and then a Pollo Chopin, El Rey, Los Pollitos 3 way cage match!

            I looked it up: Taqueria El Rey 4730 W. Vernor for those of you that want to get an early start.

            Taqueria El Rey
            4730 W Vernor Hwy, Detroit, MI 48209

            1. re: goatgolfer
              moose734 May 23, 2011 06:29 PM

              It's funny , because of how you described this place ( cafeteria look, 4 person booths, mostly take out business), I thought you were talking about El Rey and that maybe there was a new owner or something. Hmmmmm, perhaps a Memorial Day weekend trip to Mexicantown is in order.

              1. re: moose734
                goatgolfer May 24, 2011 10:53 AM

                Went to Taqueria El Rey for lunch today. They have beer and it's a couple notches up from El Papa as far as infrastructure. The grilled chicken is significantly different but absolutely terrific. No real sauce on the chicken as it's cooked but it must have been brined because it was juicy and tasty. For $6 you get chips and a very good salsa, beans, rice and tortillas with 1/2 chicken. Same price as El Papa but more stuff and it's all very well prepared.

                Something about El Papa is attractive due to its rustic/family feel and very well cooked and sauced bird. El Rey is more of a true resto and serves beer and very good chips and salsa.

                It's a bit like fish or chicken. They are both good it just depends on what you are in the mood for. But, the cage match is still on. It will be fun to get R-sux and JPs inputs on different solutions to the same dilemma.

                And, before you ask R-sux, no this is not a repeat of the CDO french onion soup adventure. Although, I did go all the way up Vernor looking for a third contender other than Pollo Chopin...

                Taqueria El Rey
                4730 W Vernor Hwy, Detroit, MI 48209

              2. re: goatgolfer
                rainsux May 24, 2011 03:27 AM

                > Pollo Chopin, El Rey, Los Pollitos 3 way cage match!

                I'm "in" ...

            2. jjspw May 31, 2011 01:58 PM

              FANTASTIC recommendation, GG! I've got to say this might be the best restaurant recommendation I've ever received online before.

              Went on Saturday, and it was exactly as GG described. The chicken is phenomenal. I'm usually in the chicken-is-boring camp, but El Papa has convinced me otherwise. It's succulent, juicy, so moist. The flavor from the charcoal grill is brilliant, but the rub used on the meat before and during grilling also helps enhance the flavor. It's a very unique rub--spicy and red, so lots of chillies, but has sort of a salty backing, but also moist enough to baste on during cooking.

              Like GG later said, it's really not the same thing as El Rey. El Rey doesn't really season the meat other than brining. The rub/baste at El Papa is quite different. A decent analogy for El Rey's chicken to El Papa's chicken might be carnitas to al pastor.

              I don't know that I'd say it's worth the trip all the way from Waterford. But, I'd highly suggest a day in SW Detroit spent hitting up some of the tastiest spots down there:
              El Papa de los Pollitos
              Taqueira El Rey
              Nevería La Michoacana
              Pollo Chapin
              El Taquito taco truck
              Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño
              E&L Supermercado

              2 Replies
              1. re: jjspw
                goatgolfer Jun 1, 2011 07:27 PM

                I'm going to let this cage match idea rest a bit for vacation season. But, before the Tigers are through I think an announced CH only, time-focused and juried chicken fest may be in the works.

                Janelle: Does Neveria serve pollo? I only see glaces reviews??

                And, a special invitation to the Taco Truck for a location centrale may be enough to get the Boagman to spend some petrol money!

                Darn. I hope Eppsie doesn't steal this idea...

                1. re: goatgolfer
                  jjspw Jun 2, 2011 05:32 PM

                  Neveria is just desserts. Aguas frescas, horchata, tropical fruit flavored popsicles, shaved ice, fruit with cream. They also have some ice cream, but it's not homemade. I was just listing off some of my favorite places in all of SW Detroit, not specifically for pollo.

              2. b
                boagman Jun 5, 2011 02:28 AM

                Tried it and liked it for the most part. It's definitely not hard on the wallet. It's also definitely "rustic", as GG said. *Very* rustic...but that's not necessarily unfair in the grand scheme of things.

                My chicken was just a little bit overdone...the white meat wasn't really juicy, but it wasn't killed, either. The dark meat, with its additional insulation from the fat and what not, was better, and to be honest, I enjoy dark meat more than white, so it wasn't that big of a deal...at Thanksgiving (and on post-Thanksgiving sandwiches) I prefer about a 2-1 ratio of dark meat to white meat.

                I must admit: there is something magical about that sauce that they slather onto the chicken. It really does, indeed, penetrate the bird a good ways, and it's fantastic. It's also not barbecue at all, which I'm very glad for. Not that there's anything wrong with BBQ chicken...but if it had been that, I'd have been *sorely* disappointed. The additional hot "salsa" I didn't actually use on the chicken, and I'm pretty dead sure that it's not what they sauce the chicken with. I used the hot "salsa" on the side of rice, which I put into the tortillas, to make an erstwhile poor man's taco, which actually wasn't bad. The woman warned me that the salsa was "hot". I laughed and drank a couple of spoonfuls right in front of her. She was a bit amused by that, I think. The chicken's the story, though, and at $6 for a half chicken, I wasn't complaining.

                Actually, there aren't many things to take issue with at all. I'll list them, and then I'll address them after the fact.

                1. The half chicken is pretty small. It just is, or at least mine was. I was able to polish it off in full, along with all the rice, and all the tortillas. Normally, I'd be able to take some of that home with me, but not in this case.

                2. The half chicken was strangely cut/portioned. I've never seen chicken served in pieces like this: there were *five* pieces, and the only truly recognizable piece was the leg. Nothing horrible or anything...just a bit odd, to be sure.

                3. There's definitely a bit of a gap in the "understanding English" department. It resulted in me receiving more tortillas, which I didn't want. I was charged for them.

                4. "Rustic" also equals "no air conditioning". It's quite apparent that they do far more carryout business to the locals than dine-ins for, well, anybody. It sure was hot in there, especially after you've been there for a while.

                These, however, are "small potatoes" qualms with the place. It's just sort of the nature of what you're dealing with. My total bill, after food, drink (2 cans of cold Coke...it was hot in there!), and tip (tax appears to be included in the food price...possible "wink, wink" situation, of course) was $10 out the door, and I, too, was tempted to take another half chicken to go, but did not.

                So, even with my minor qualms, the price point just can't be overlooked. They're nice people, they're working hard, and they're doing a *fine* job with that chicken. It's a bit on the small side, and I wish that it hadn't been on the grill quite as long as it was (for the white meat's sake), but for the price? Darned right it's good. Whatever complaints there are to be made, even I know that the price point makes it hard to take such quibbles seriously.

                Nice recommendation, GG.

                1. d
                  DoctorTeef Aug 7, 2011 09:48 PM


                  I really wanted to like this place, I really did. Having been a huge fan of El Rey and pollo asado in general, I gave a go today and was really disappointed. I didn't mind the rustic, minimalist quality of the place, I even liked the chicken mascot. Plus I've always had a soft spot for small mom n pop stores. I strictly judge a place based on the food. And the food disappointed.

                  My real complaint about the place was that the chicken was undercooked. I let waitress know my bird was still nearly raw, and to take their time in recooking it. So the grillmaster threw my half eaten chicken back on the grill( uhh ok...), and despite that it was still undercooked( the thigh was nearly bleeding)

                  I couldn't even finish my plate...

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: DoctorTeef
                    boagman Aug 8, 2011 12:14 AM

                    Hmm. More proof that grilling can be just as much art as science. Sorry yours was undercooked, especially since I can imagine that the longer the chicken's on the grill, the more "treatments" it receives, and the better it penetrates the bird. Yours was practically the opposite of mine.

                    One quick question, if I may: when you were there were they cooking a lot at the time, or a little? Dinner/lunch, or off hours? That *may* be a factor, but it's still not an excuse...bloody chicken is still bloody chicken, and I wouldn't want to risk salmonella poisoning, either.

                    I am a bit amused (but not one bit surprised!) that they threw your partially-eaten chicken back on the grill. I do my very best when I'm out at places like that to not think about such things, even though I know that it happens in tons of kitchens everywhere (and far worse!).

                    Again, sorry your expectations weren't met.

                    1. re: boagman
                      DoctorTeef Aug 14, 2011 04:18 PM

                      They were cooking a lot outside. But I was the only customer. What I noticed was they precook the birds, and store a bunch of them inside, when a customer orders some chicken they throw the precooked bird on the grill and reheat/ cook them more thoroughly. This was during the early evening, can't remember what time exactly.

                      No need to apologize. I was actually trying to reply to goatgolfer's post, but accidentally replied to yours.

                  2. g
                    gan911 Jan 14, 2012 04:54 PM

                    well i finally got a chance to goto mexicantown and this was one of the places i went to. Definitely one of the more delicious chicken alla brasa places i've had. The restaurant interior is quite stark and was permeated with the smell of smoke and grilled chicken.
                    The whole chicken meal came with soup - tomato, cilantro, beans, and cut up pieces of hot dogs. Salty, spicy, little acid....nothing special. The rice was quite bland. There was also a hot sauce - very liquidy , but not watery...tasted like spicy smoked chile thats been boiled and then purred down with some tomatoes, though very savory and not much sugar.
                    Then came the chicken, smokey, spicy, savory, juicy pieces of chicken that was been butterflyed. They came out of the warmer and went onto the grill outside. THe spicy mixture (i've got a cold) tasted like achiote + cumin + smoked chiles + lime maybe? Not overcooked, not undercooked, definitely delicious. THe tortillas that came with the chicken seemed to be high quality corn tortillas, though not made in house (the edges are too smooth)

                    I didnt get to try anything else on the menu, seeing i was saving space for mexican bakery and papusas down the street....this place is definitely worth visiting, I'm not sure if I'd drive 30 min just for chicken. If you're in the area, I'd definitely go and try it though. If the place was a little cleaner and had more menu items, then it'd definitely move up higher on my list

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