Homemade Pollo Campero (Central American–Style Fried Chicken)

[Photograph above: Karla Vasquez; Process photographs: Tim Chin]

The last time that my mom flew back from El Savador, I greeted her at LAX with an excited “Hi, Ma!” She responded with an urgent, “El Pollo Campero is in that maleta (suitcase).”

Pollo Campero is a food chain that originated in Guatemala, but has since become a cultural icon throughout Central America, including my family’s native El Salvador. Their signature dish is delicious and succulent fried chicken that’s layered with spices, perfect when paired with tortillas, french fries, a dinner roll, or—a more appropriate Central American side dish—yuca fries.

Our airport scene is more or less how it goes every time, my mother arriving with an entire piece of carry-on luggage meticulously packed with boxes of Pollo Campero fried chicken. So what if it isn’t crispy? It’s a taste of home that she’s tenderly transported back to us in the States. Even after the long journey, the flavor is still mouthwateringly savory, with a pronounced pepperiness that tickles the nose.

These days, you’ll find Pollo Campero in a number of cities in the US, but with travel limited—both domestically and internationally—it seemed high time to recreate this dish in the comfort and safety of my own kitchen. It took me a while to recreate the dredging’s specific spice profile, but this version, which includes both white and black pepper, cumin, curry powder, chile pepper, and more, hits closest to my sense memories. Just as important: a small dose of MSG, required for its savory, umami kick. Of course you can leave it out, if desired, but the chicken won’t quite taste like home without it.