Pollo Campero wants to be the next chicken sensation in the US. The chain's vast menu is a mashup of the best at Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and El Pollo Loco.

Pollo Campero wants to be the next chicken sensation in the US. The chain's vast menu is a mashup of the best at Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and El Pollo Loco.
  • Pollo Campero is a family-founded restaurant with a cult-like following in Central America.

  • The chain's wealthy owners plan to invest $190 million in the brand's US expansion.

  • Campero's mashup menu features items you might find at Popeyes, Chick-fil-A and El Pollo Loco.

If you're en route to the US from Central America and you smell fried chicken wafting through the main cabin, chances are someone has smuggled a box of Pollo Campero on the flight.

The 52-year-old fast-food chicken chain has fewer than 100 restaurants in the US. But in its home base of Central America, the brand has a cult-like following similar to In-N-Out.

And like In-N-Out, Campero fans in the US are known to take boxes of the brand's food home after visiting family in Guatemala and El Salvador, where the brand has more than 200 restaurants.

"The plane is full of Campero chicken," Blas Escarcega, Pollo Campero's director of franchise development, told Business Insider in a recent interview. "The pilot even has to say, "Please seal your packages for consideration of other passengers.'"

But soon, US fans might not have to travel too far to get their hands on Campero's famous fried chicken.

The Guatemalan family behind Pollo Campero, which stands for "country chicken," is worth $3 billion, according to a Forbes estimate. And, they are using their wealth to invest in the chain's US expansion – roughly $190 million over the next three years.

I visited a Pollo Campero near my home in Southern California. The menu was so big, I had to go twice. The menu is a mashup of the best offerings found at Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, KFC, and El Pollo Loco.

Here's a closer look at the brand:

Pollo Campero was founded in 1971 by the Campero family in Guatemala.

A Pollo Campero in Santa Ana.
Pollo Campero is growing rapidly in the US.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The Campero family opened a restaurant in 1967 selling fried chicken. It was a huge success, leading to the opening of the first official Pollo Campero in Guatemala City on April 28, 1971.

Pollo Campero specializes in fried chicken made using family recipes passed down from generation to generation. The fried chicken recipe is considered "a national treasure of Guatemala," the chain said.

The chain has since grown to nearly 400 restaurants around the world, with about one-fourth operating in the US.

The first Pollo Campero in the US opened in 2002 in Los Angeles. Lines wrapped around the building.

Lines at Pollo Campero in North Carolina
Lines at Pollo Campero when it opened last year in North Carolina.Pollo Campero

Los Angeles area news helicopters captured the excitement of the day. Sales hit $1 million after the first 22 days.

Despite the frenzy over the brand, Pollo Campero has grown slowly in the US over the last 20 years. Today, they have less than 100 restaurants in the US.

But US expansion has ramped up in the last year. The chain has also added new items to its US menu, such as macaroni and cheese and chicken sandwiches.

In the US, Campero serves pressure-cooked fried chicken, empanadas, a spicy chicken sandwich, grilled chicken, nuggets, salads, rice bowls, rolls, tortillas, and unique sides and beverages such as plantains, yuca fries, and horchata.

Pollo Campero is not shy about taking on some of America's most prominent fast-food chicken brands, including Chick-fil-A.

Pollo Campero introduced chicken sandwiches in the US states to compete with brands like Chick-fil-A.
A Pollo Campero chicken sandwich, at top, compared with a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Pollo Campero introduced chicken sandwiches in the US in 2021 and 2022. No doubt, they wanted a piece of action when it came to the chicken sandwich wars. Nancy Luna/Business Insider

Blas Escarcega, Pollo Campero's director of franchise development, told Business Insider that the chain's US division often opens stores right next to rivals such as Popeyes and Church's.

Escarcega said the brand's unique menu and service style (dine-in guests eat meals served on melamine plates) set itself apart from other chicken concepts.

"We truly believe that we have flavorful chicken meals with unique sides. It's something you're not going to get as far as a flavor profile in some of the other concepts, whether it's Popeyes or Church's," Escarcega told Business Insider in a recent interview.

The chain plans to triple its US locations to 250 restaurants by 2026.

Pollo Campero food
Pollo Campero sells a variety of menu options that can be found at different fast food chains such as Chipotle, KFC, and Chick-fil-A.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The wealthy Guatemalan family behind Pollo Campero plan to invest $190 million over the next three years on the chain's US expansion, Escarcega told Business Insider.

The company has identified several key markets for developing company-owned and franchised stores, including California, New York, Texas, Washington DC, Illinois, Boston, Nevada, and Atlanta, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, northern Florida, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado.

I visited Pollo Campero in Santa Ana, California. The menu was so big I had to go twice to try all the dishes.

Pollo Camero's dining room.
This Pollo Campero in Santa Ana, California, took over a closed KFC location. It looks much nicer.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The restaurant, which took over a closed KFC location, was near Target. It's also down the street from a Popeyes.

Escarcega said the chain likes to plant itself in high-traffic retail locations.

The dining room had a mix of high-top tables, booths, and standard tables with chairs. Each table had plenty of eating space, clearly designed for family-style eating.

On my first visit, I didn't try the bone-in fried chicken. I was told that was a "Campero sin."

Pollo Campero's bone-in fried chicken
Pollo Campero's bone-in fried chicken is considered the hero product on the menu.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The hero of the menu is the chain's thinly breaded, pressure-cooked bone-in chicken.

But I didn't try it on my first visit because I was comparing the brand to Chick-fil-A, which doesn't sell bone-in chicken. (You can read that review here.)

I interviewed Escarcega a few days after my first visit. He is based in Pollo Campero's US headquarters in Dallas, Texas. He told me I committed a "Campero sin" for not having the fried chicken.

So I returned to the restaurant two weeks later for absolution.

I wanted to see if the chicken was better than Popeyes, which I prefer over KFC.

The chicken sandwich wasn't a good first impression of the brand's proprietary fried chicken.

The best part of the classic chicken sandwich at Campero was the hefty chicken breast, and the crunchy pickle. That's it.
The classic chicken sandwich at Campero contained a sizable piece of fried chicken.Nancy Luna/Insider

I may have committed a sin by not ordering the bone-in fried chicken, but shouldn't the flavor profile of the lightly coated breading be the same in the chicken sandwich?

If it was, I wasn't at all impressed.

The chicken, as I stated in my previous review, was boring. No flavor.

The spicy chicken sandwich, on the other hand, was crazy good.

Instead of adding spices to the breading, Campero brings up the heat in this sandwich by using a secret spicy sauce slathered on the bun.

The manager told me it was a "Caribbean-style" dressing. It should be bottled.

Pollo Campero takes dine-in presentation up a notch with its plating.

Pollo Campero was founded in Guatemala in 1971.
Pollo Campero was founded in Guatemala in 1971. It is known for its fried chicken.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

I was immediately taken aback by Campero's presentation. Everything is served on melamine plates.

Escarcega said this is how food is served in its core restaurants in Central America. He said the chain loves to serve food on real plates because that's how people eat at home.

"I would not want to go to my house and be served on a paper plate," he said.

It's a nice touch, but if you're going to do that you should commit all the way. The chain provides plastic forks with the food.

The chain serves an eclectic array of sides, such as yuca fries and macaroni and cheese.

The hero of the Pollo Campero menu is the chain's thinly-breaded pressure cooked bone-in chicken.
Pollo Campero offers an eclectic variety of sides.Pollo Campero

Campero's sides speak volumes about the brand's menu range.

They sell beans, rice, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, french fries, yuca fries, and plantains. The chain's website lists mashed potatoes as a side, but it was not available at the restaurant I visited during both my visits.

Campero added macaroni and cheese to the menu in the US in August. It is not served in Central America.

Escarcega said the brand decided to add it because it's a "mainstream side" in the US. The chicken sandwiches are also a US-only offering, debuting in 2021 and 2022.

I was not a fan of the mac 'n cheese. I thought Chick-fil-A's was better. Escarcega said the new dish has been "well accepted" by customers. My cashier in Santa Ana also told me it was his favorite side dish.

I tried all the sides, and I thought the best item was the Campero beans. They were addictive.

The Campero beans
The Campero beans, on the bottom right below the plate, are made with chorizo. They were addictive.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The Campero beans are packed with flavor. The pinto beans are slow-roasted with chorizo, mild poblano chilies, chopped onions, and diced tomatoes. The spicy chorizo is the key component in this side dish.

I was scraping my bowl with a dinner roll to ensure I ingested every morsel of the dish.

On my second visit, I ordered the bone-in fried chicken. After eating it, I confess it was indeed a sin not to try it first.

Pollo Campero's fried chicken.
I was told it was a "Campero sin" to visit a store and not try the fried chicken. The chicken is fried in palm oil. Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The bone-in fried chicken definitely had thicker breading than the coating I tried on the chicken sandwiches. But it is not as thick as the breading on KFC and Popeyes bone-in chicken.

The pressure-cooked chicken, which is marinated to the bone, was moist and juicy. It looked like pan-fried Southern fried chicken but with a slightly darker coating. The breading was crispy and full of flavor.

And, unlike KFC and Popeyes, it wasn't greasy.

As bone-in chicken goes, Pollo Campero is far superior than KFC, and on par with Popeyes.

For those who don't want fried chicken, Pollo Campero offers grilled bone-in chicken.

Pollo Campero's grilled chicken
Pollo Campero grilled chicken is marinated with a citrus blend that is similar to El Pollo Loco.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The grilled chicken had a nice char on the outside. It presented well.

On the first bite, I could taste the zest of the citrus-marinade. But, that flavor profile disappeared on subsequent bites.

It was good, but not as good as El Pollo Loco, which grills its chicken over an open flame. But, I like the fact that Campero is offering a non-fried chicken option.

Campero's chicken bowl and chicken salad look almost identical.

Campero salad and bowl
The Pollo Campero salad, bottom, and bowl look similar. Nancy Luna/Business Insider

Like El Pollo Loco and Chipotle, Pollo Campero offers a bowl and a salad for those who don't want to get their hands messy with bone-in fried chicken or grilled chicken.

The bowl is on a bed of rice topped with Campero beans, spring mix, roasted corn and peppers, cherry tomatoes, smashed avocado, and feta cheese. It is topped with bite-size chunks of fried chicken.

The salad is a bed of spring mix topped fried chicken, roasted corn and peppers, shredded carrots, grape tomatoes, and feta cheese. The dressing options include ranch or Paul Newman's balsamic.

The bowl was my favorite of the two because it was a heartier meal with the warm rice and the delicious Campero beans.

The most unique entree on the menu was the empanada.

Pollo Campero's empanada.
Pollo Campero's empanada was supposed to be served with sauce. We didn't get any.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

The empanada is described as being stuffed with "freshly pulled chicken, roasted corn, peppers, onion, and Monterey Jack cheese."

It was supposed to be served with the chain's tangy Campero sauce.

But, the sauce was missing. And, we really needed sauce for this dish. The empanada's exterior texture was not crispy. It was limp, and chewy. It tasted more like a spicy chicken dumpling. But the pulled chicken was very tasty. I wish the pulled chicken was an option for the bowl or salad.

Last but not least, Campero serves two desserts: a chocolate chip cookie and flan.

Pollo Campero desserts include flan and chocolate chip cookies.
Pollo Campero desserts include flan and chocolate chip cookies.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

One thing I admire about this brand is they cast a wide net. They are not shy about trying to appeal to various palates. Not everyone likes flan. But most everyone loves chocolate chip cookies.

Both desserts are better than most fast food offerings. (Chick-fil-A shakes excluded). The slightly chewy cookie, packed with lots of chocolate chips, is better than the one at McDonald's.

The flan was visually unappealing, as the salted caramel could not be seen. It had seeped to the bottom of the dish.

Still, the flan was cloyingly sweet and delicious. My diet was officially ruined.

Pollo Campero is sure to be a chicken contender in the US. It's not perfect, but it's worth a visit.

Pollo Campero has a menu that should appeal to anyone looking for a variety of chicken meals and sides.
Pollo Campero has a menu that should appeal to anyone looking for a variety of chicken meals and sides.Nancy Luna/Business Insider

I loved the eclectic menu at Pollo Campero. Not everything was a home run. But I didn't expect the large menu to be 100% perfect.

The standout items on the menu include the bone-in fried chicken, the Campero beans, the rice bowl with fried chicken, the spicy chicken sandwich, and the flan.

If you see Campero opening a location near you, give it a try.

Just don't sin like me and forget to try the fried chicken.

Read the original article on Business Insider