When Poli Avelino came to the States from the coastal Mexican state of Guerrero at the age of 16, he never expected to make Alabama his home. He spent 30 years in the restaurant industry in Los Angeles, and his establishment was even the subject of an article featured in the Los Angeles Times. In 2010, Poli and his family moved to Alabama to help a cousin who has a restaurant and bakery in Russellville, and he brought with him the skills and secrets that make truly authentic Mexican food so delicious. Last summer, the opportunity presented itself for Poli to start up his own place, and in June, El Pollo Maniaco opened for business.
By way of back story, when Steve and I lived in Ciudad Juarez, there was a pollo asado eatery that was known only as “Papi’s.” Papi had a “hole-in-the-wall” place that was the size of a postage stamp, and his food was legendary on both sides of the border. We would have people ask us to bring them food from Papi’s over the border to Texas and New Mexico, and I always thought I would have to go back there to get anything as good ever again. I am happy to report that Poli’s fare found at El Pollo Maniaco more than fills the bill, and now I only have to drive down Hwy 31 to Tanner in order to enjoy the distinctive flavor that is the true “art of asada.”
So, what is asada? Technically “carne asada” means “grilled meat.” It can refer to chicken, beef, pork, chorizo sausage, or seafood, and it is cooked over a grill called a “parrilla.” The secrets and the skills that give asada its distinctive flavor have to do with marinades, grill temperatures, spices, and recipes (or “recetas”) that are handed down to each generation, and can vary from region to region. The asada of Guerrero is slightly different than that of Chihuahua, and each area takes great pride in their cuisine, as well they should. I ordered the two-piece chicken special with rice, beans, tortillas, and salsa. It came with fresh corn tortillas, lime squeezes and a red as well as a green salsa, homemade. Instantly I was transported back in time, and it was a true feast! Poli guards his secrets and is not exaggerating when he says, “You won’t find anything like this in the area.”
The Mexican menu includes burritos, tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, and specials which have shrimp, tilapia, chicken, and steak. They are more than reasonably priced, and the portions are ample. In addition to Mexican food, Poli grills hamburgers, makes sandwiches, omelettes, pancakes, French toast, and soon on Sundays he will offer menudo, a soup which is considered a delicacy. Menudo is served traditionally only on Sundays and for special occasions.
One of Poli’s raving fan customers is Mark White, of the Mark White Radio Show. Mark almost always gets the carne asada made with beef; his son Nicholas loves the turkey club sandwich and the chicken quesadillas. Years ago, Mark owned a business on the square called Tortillas Blanco, and his love for authentic Mexican cuisine and tortillas grew out of the many mission trips Mark took as a boy with his grandfather, starting at the age of 11. Mark joined us for the interview, and it was a joy to hear the two of them “talk shop” regarding what it takes to make excellent tortillas.
Poli and Mark talked about certain special offers that are going to be a part of El Pollo Maniaco’s way of giving back to the community. On Sundays, if you bring in your church bulletin, you’ll save 10% on your bill. If you are a Calhoun student, all you need to do is show your student ID and your tab will be 10% less as well. For high school students who show their ID, a junior cheeseburger, fries, and a drink will be available for $4.50.
Just as each region has its own take on asada, the sauce known as mole has the same varying signature. In some areas, mole has unsweetened chocolate as part of its base. It is complex, spicy, and a perfect finish to just about any meat dish. Poli is going to be introducing the mole of his region soon, and I am looking forward to trying it.
Finally, I need to make a strong statement about the prices, which just can’t be beat. If you are a busy working mom who is too tired to cook, you can call ahead and get four 1/4lb burgers, four orders of fries, and four drinks for $18.99. For $12.99, a whole chicken (8 pieces), rice, beans, tortillas, and salsa is yours. So, get on down to Hwy 31 and Browns Ferry Road in Tanner any weekday from 6 a.m.-8 p.m., or on Sunday from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. and see why El Pollo Maniaco is such a welcome addition to the Tennessee Valley.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner