There are plenty of restaurants that make an effort to please everyone. Sometimes, that means accommodating reasonable requests for modifications to a dish. It can also mean adding a token entree outside a place’s usual niche in order to override the veto of one member of a group considering a meal there.Those are all understandable steps to take, but it’s easy to get carried away with excessively long menus mired in mediocrity. That’s why it’s refreshing that places like El Pollo Supremo carry on with tightly focused menus that don’t try too hard.
El Pollo Supremo is a Tempe classic with a menu as small as its dining room. The restaurant has stood for decades in a strip mall on University Drive, just over half a mile from the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station and a block from the University / Ash and 9th Street / Mill stops on the Tempe Streetcar route. Bike racks are found facing Ash Avenue outside Otto Pizza and Pastry. If El Pollo’s limited menu, offering only plates of grilled pollo asado and carne asada, seems like a throwback to another era, so are the payment options. There is only one: cash.
For customers who are not picky eaters or subject to restrictive diets and who manage to carry at least a few old-fashioned bills in their pockets, El Pollo Supremo excels in fulfilling its narrowly defined mission. Customers order at the counter and then take a seat in the small dining room, now even smaller due to operating at half capacity during the pandemic. At this point, more than half of the restaurant’s business appears to be takeout as evidenced by the steady stream of customers arriving at the counter and leaving shortly after with bags of food.
The menu is the classic airline food choice of chicken or beef, but with a whole lot more flavor. The restaurant’s pollo asado can be ordered by the quarter, half, or full bird. Regardless of size, it’s served with crisp, ruddy skin and moist meat inside. The co-star of the menu is the carne asada. It’s tender and served in somewhat larger chunks than the finely minced variety seen at many places. Like the chicken, it’s offered in varying quantities of meat, and for those who want to try both, there’s a combo plate of a quarter chicken and a quarter pound of beef.
All the plates come accessorized with pickled onions, mild red salsa, whole pinto beans, and a choice of corn or flour tortillas. The tortillas are useful for scooping pieces of meat, dipping in salsa, or any other technique used to enjoy the mingling of flavors. Additional a-la-carte side dishes include fluffy seasoned rice, coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni salad. Customers can also add a few roasted jalapenos to any order to set the spice level higher or order a little container of sour cream to achieve the opposite goal of extinguishing any lingering fire.
Beverages include fountain sodas, bottled water, and Mexican drinks like horchata and tamarindo. There is no liquor license, but anyone desiring craft beer to go with a takeout order can stop at Tops Liquors a block to the west and even bring food into the adjacent Taste of Tops taproom. No desserts are offered, but pastry can be found at Otto’s around the corner. El Pollo Supremo’s model has always been to do just a few things really well. In a time when restaurants have had to narrow their focus to survive, that approach makes more sense than ever before.
221 W. University Dr., Tempe, AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station