Restaurant review: Pollo Garden's seductive spice

Authentic Peruvian flavors are found at Ybor City's Pollo Garden.

click to enlarge Pollo Garden's chicken and rib platter served with a snappy dipping sauce. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Pollo Garden's chicken and rib platter served with a snappy dipping sauce.

Food links us to cultures around the globe. We glimpse national character from the myriad tastes of world cuisine. The rich bounty of ethnic heritage passes from generation to generation, and as immigrants move from their home countries for new opportunities, we are able to experience a world of flavors, limited only by available ingredients and the ability of chefs to capture the essence of their homelands on a plate.

In Ybor City, we're accustomed to sampling the flavors of Cuba, Italy and the Middle East. But take just a few steps off the main drag and you'll get a taste of Peru, too.

Less than two blocks south of Seventh, a historical plaque marks the spot where Tampa cigar pioneer Emilio Pons launched the first cigar factory of local origin in 1887. Directly across 17th Street, a small, unassuming building with a walk-up window catches the eye. Pollo Garden, it seems, is aptly named, since the entire restaurant is essentially outdoors.

The slanting shed roof extends over the concrete patio. It’s decked out with hanging ceiling fans for those hot Florida days when you’re willing to forgo A/C for some rockin’ chicken or ribs. It’s all surrounded by a huge white picket fence (with parking), dwarfed by enormous live oaks that rise majestically above the “garden.”

click to enlarge Near the casual restaurant, folks usually spot Ybor chickens mingling. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Near the casual restaurant, folks usually spot Ybor chickens mingling.

A wooden bar with stools bisects the space as wrought-iron tables with umbrellas reach beyond the hanging tarps. They’re gathered on a balmy spring day, but stand ready to protect patrons when less-than-pleasant weather rears its ugly head. There are strings of lights with paper shades and tiki torches for atmosphere and light. It’s casual and welcoming, just like the staff that aims to make you feel like part of the family.

As the name indicates, pollo, or chicken, rules the day. The Peruvian-style poultry combines cumin, lime and garlic with smoke that permeates the crisp skin and gives each bite savory, lip-smacking goodness. With a piquant dipping sauce of yellow pepper mayo with onion and garlic, you’ve really got some extra snap. You can order a quarter chicken or super-size to half a bird. This includes a dinner salad that’s simple and generic, but the ingredients are fresh.

The eatery also offers yummy baby back ribs alone, or as part of a combination platter with the chicken. They, too, are full of smoky, dry-rubbed flavor as the meat falls off the bone and quickly brings smiles to my dining companions. We incorporate big chunks of scrumptious, ripe fried plantains and crisp fries. Both are the perfect golden accompaniments, complementing the proteins.

Even as we sit in the pollo garden, the sound of crowing fills the air — the roosters don’t understand the irony in their crispy cousins being served within earshot. Luckily, there’s also a sandwich of thickly sliced smoked sausage coated with a tasty semisweet barbecue sauce on a ciabatta roll, and no oinks to be heard.

All the food is affordable, but the true bargain is an absolutely delicious beef taco for $2. The fresh, soft corn tortilla wraps around a spicy mound of impeccably seasoned ground beef with diced onion and cilantro. It delivers so much more flavor than any fast-food chain. This is the real McCoy, Peru-style.

click to enlarge Diners chow outside along Pollo Garden's rear patio. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Diners chow outside along Pollo Garden's rear patio.

A great deal on Modelo Especial is featured if your tastes lean toward pilsner-style lagers, and the red sangria delivers a balance of sweetness and fruit alongside big chunks of fresh pineapple and a juicy orange wedge. It’s a refreshing quencher on a warm summer day that adds to the savory spice delivered by the food.

The lone dessert is a purchased cheesecake wedge that’s creamy with a touch of lemon. It’s heightened with chocolate sauce that zig-zags across the plate, dripping down the sides of the slice to make tiny pools that glisten as beams of sunlight pass through the live oak leaves, creating dappled patterns in the garden.

I sit in the shade, feel the cool breeze, surf the web on the free wifi, sip my sangria and dream of returning to eat some more Peruvian chicken. Pollo Garden’s a lot closer than Machu Picchu. You don’t need to acclimate to the thin air of 7,972 feet; breathing in the seductive, smoky scents of Ybor at 36 feet above sea level is just fine and dandy.

Buen provecho! 

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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