Like its prickly name suggests, the Cactus Centro “Commercial Business Center” (2864 Cerrillos Road) isn’t necessarily what you’d call “inviting.”
Signs posted against its metal fencing are enough to make the Five Man Electrical Band write a follow-up to their 1970 classic. One of them “Absolutely!” warns against any type of car repair; while another states that 9 pm to 6 am is officially “quiet time” and all radios must be turned off. A third one makes it clear that on-premise alcohol and drug consumption, along with “congregating” of any kind, are strictly prohibited. Junkie church leaders, take note.
Bleak as this might seem, the succulent strip mall is host to Santa Fe’s best-kept secret, Pollo Asado (Roasted Chicken).
“Stick to what you know” the old adage goes, and for owner Ludovico Arizmendi, it rings true. Located inside a trailer, Arizmendi’s locale has perfected the art of roasting and char-grilling chicken and offers it in every imaginable variety—be it in fajita ($8), rolled taquito ($6 for an order of six), torta ($6) or sincronizada ($8) form.
Those in the know, however, go whole hog (or in this case hen) and order the “whole chicken dinner” ($18).
“El pollo asado es el más chingón,” Arizmendi says of his signature dish. With an audible rumble coming from my stomach, I take his word for it and order the sensible half-chicken meal ($9.50).
The sound of grilling commingles with a buzz from a neighboring tattoo shop and the roar of an engine coming from a muscle car whose owner decided to ignore the signs and work on it anyway.
The hearty half chick arrives, hulking over a Styrofoam container, accompanied by rice, beans and a half-dozen corn tortillas. I tell Arizmendi it looks damn good, to which, without missing a beat, he replies, “It doesn’t look good, it is good.”
Topping it off is a welcome surprise, a half-mozzarella/half-asadero quesadilla.
“All grilled meals should be topped by a quesadilla,” Arizmendi shares. “Be it beef, shrimp or chicken—it just makes everything taste better.”
No shit. I devour it with gusto, in expectation of the main course.
“Nowhere in Santa Fe will you find chicken like this,” Arizmendi boasts. “Just wait, it’s the perfect lunch,” the hype man continues.
In an almost hypnotic state of frenzy due to the combination of grill smoke, engine fumes and promises, I take my first bite of the entrée. The result is a combination of fireworks, Baby Jessica coming out of the well and Barack and Michelle Obama dancing to “At Last” during the prez’ first inauguration. In my mouth.
I toss my fork to the side and dig in using nothing but my hands. The meat is juicy, deeply flavorful and falls right off the bone like marshmallows thrown from heaven by the Baby Jesus himself. It’s a result, Arizmendi says, of his special combination of herbs and spices that way exceed KFC’s 11.
For a second, I come up for air and consider jaunting to Hobby Lobby to buy some gold-toned craft paper, cutting some stars out and dubbing him General.
Without over-sharing, Arizmendi cites garlic, oregano and achiote as some of the dish’s main seasonings.
Another secret is using exclusively Mexican briquettes to release his chicken’s distinct flavor. “The American ones just don’t work,” he says, propping a bag of El Diablo mesquite charcoal atop the trailer’s narrow eating counter.
I nod, buoyantly, a combination of homemade chile de árbol salsa and chicken juice flowing down my beard like the aftermath of some perverted poultry bukkake scene starring Foghorn Leghorn and the San Diego Chicken.
The Olive Garden might have branded the “When you’re here, you’re family” slogan, but just a few minutes into my meal, it’s evident that’s the case at Pollo Asado in spades, as Arizmendi greets his regulars by calling them paisano (compatriot), primo (cousin)—or, if they’re top-notch, pariente (relative).
Impressed by my Kobayashi-like behavior, Arizmendi offers me some complimentary pickled red onions.
“They’re usually reserved for the whole orders,” he says, as I almost bite his fingers off.
The resulting symphony of flavors is moan-inducing. Literally. Like that When Harry Met Sally scene, except with less poofy hair.
“Come back soon, pariente,” Arizmendi hollers as I’m leaving, letting me know I’m now part of the family.
Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-6 pm
Serving: all chicken, all the tiempo
Recommendation: the downright heavenly half-chicken meal