IF THE NEON SIGN is lit up above Pollo Norte's door at NE 42nd and Killingsworth, it's your lucky day. It means some of the most amazing birds you'll get in Portland are still available.
Inside this tiny 12-seat spot, free-range chickens turn like indecisive sunbathers on a spit, and cabbage and jalapeños line the bottom of the rotisserie to catch the drippings. Watch your order get pulled from the machine and hacked into delectable juicy bits with a cleaver. Get the full delicious effect of the chicken on handmade grilled masa tortillas. Don't forget the impeccable pinto beans and fluffy tomato rice.
It is, simply put, pollo perfection.
Open for barely a month, Pollo Norte's owners—Wade Shelton, Kelly Shelton, and Ryan Gibson—told Eater Portland their goal was to open in homage to the chicken of Mexico City. There, many of the shops are open air, and birds are served with tortillas and salsa, to-go only. It's the best possible fast-food scenario.
I've had this style of chicken in Puerto Vallarta, and Pollo's owners aren't wrong to say it's addictive, and hard to find in the metro area. Pollos a la Brasa El Inka in Gresham does a mean rotisserie, but it's hampered by that long and not-so-scenic drive to the 'burbs. Also, El Inka's chickens are rubbed in spice and cooked over a wood-fire rotisserie in the Peruvian style, a different twist on the medium.
Pollo Norte brines its birds for at least 12 hours in annatto, lime juice, bay leaf, peppercorn, and Mexican piloncillo sugar, before throwing them into the super-heated gas-powered rotisserie (a Valmex imported from Mexico... muy auténtico).
Despite the fact its chickens are free range and the sides are local and organic whenever possible, Pollo Norte is cheap. We're talking $24 for an entire chicken and two large sides, enough to feed three to four easily. Small sides are $2, and a quarter chicken with a few tortillas and that drippings-flavored cabbage is just $7. Don't miss the fresh green salsa; its lime-induced acid lights up the rich chicken like nobody's business.
Side dishes are so good, it's almost a shame you're apt to fill up on poultry. Every last dish on the five-item sides menu is dialed in to perfection, especially the pinto beans. They're made from scratch (I know this because I got an errant pebble in one order) and loaded with bacon, pork shoulder and chilies. I got seriously possessive of the to-go container the first time I tried them, hoarding it from my two girlfriends, while I drank the salty broth.
The rice, with its tomatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, and oregano, is fluffy and well cooked, with each grain separate from the other—a fantastic departure from the mushy clumps I've had at other Mexican restaurants. The slaw is a must-add to the chicken-filled tortillas, providing crunch and tartness with no sogginess. The potatoes are also cooked in the chicken fat, and hit with bacon and granular salt. The frijoles negros are wonderfully citrusy and less rich than the pinto beans. Everything is gluten free—as long as you don't order any beer.
With only shoulder-to-shoulder bar stool seating available, I'd grab a can of Tecate ($2.50) while you wait, and then take your prize home, where you can shove your face in front of Seinfield reruns. The owners told Eater that they will apply for a liquor license and will try to build a summer-friendly patio, so it could be a place to linger once the temperature climbs.
To be straight, this review is hard for me to write, because Pollo Norte is already running out of chickens early. Now you a-holes are going to be my competition. Bring it on.
Open Tues-Sun 11 am-10 pm. Best for to-go orders. Please don't take children under five to dine-in, they'll fall off a damn stool.