Some people smuggle drugs. I smuggle muffuletta.
Muffuletta is one of New Orleans’ iconic sandwiches, an Italian sesame-seed-studded bread loaf split horizontally and topped with a salad of olives, celery, cauliflower and carrot marinated in olive oil and herbs, and layers of freshly sliced capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler and provolone. You can find the sandwich outside of New Orleans, but as with many regional delicacies, such as the Philly cheesesteak, something gets lost in translation. Thanks to my friends Brian and Sara Gronowski, who fly in a bakery’s load from Central Grocery in New Orleans for their annual Mardi Gras party, I got a shot at the best version before ever stepping foot in the French Quarter. The sandwich might as well have been the president of the New Orleans chamber of commerce, because after my first bite, two months later I was on a plane to Louisiana.
When I finally rolled down to 923 Decatur Street and saw the red-painted wood shingle for Central Grocery, hawking “French Market Coffee,” it was akin to the joy I have when spotting the Chicago skyline from the Dan Ryan after a long trip away from the city. In a place in which I’d never lived, I was damn glad to be home.
That first visit, the lines were out the door, and as I got close to the entrance, I greedily pawed at the windows with my greasy fingers. When I finally rolled through the flimsy wooden door, the yeasty perfume of fresh bread roiled in my nostrils. In that moment, I was compelled to strangle the dude who invented commercial baking, the man who most assuredly robbed me of the constant joy of smelling freshly baked bread throughout my life. (If you want to know what I’m talking about, head on over to the Gonnella bread plant one morning.)
That afternoon, a personal New Orleans-to-Chicago tradition was born. On every return visit to the Big Easy, there would always be an order for two muffulettas, one to eat at Central amidst the ruddy hanging salamis and crinkly cellophane bags of pasta, and one for the plane ride home.
On that first journey back to Chicago, I’d carelessly stashed the sandwich in my carry-on. Halfway through the flight, the cabin started to smell like the fruity perfume of olive salad. People leered, out of jealousy or anger, maybe both, as the white paper wrapper soaked through, yielding a big fat greasy circle on my backpack.
I should have known better. After all I knew a dude who once chucked a dime bag of pot into a trash bin outside Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport while simultaneous checking to make sure his wild boar sausage and unpasteurized cheese were inconspicuously stowed in his luggage. Next time I’d bring a plastic bag.
Intercontinental food traffic isn’t anything new, and it’s rumored that some flights from Guatemala or El Salvador to the United States are notorious for smelling like a Frialator on overdrive. The source of the greasy tang: deep-fried chicken from Pollo Campero.
While Pollo Campero, founded in 1971, is ubiquitous in Central America, there’s only twenty-eight locations in the U.S. Fortunately for Chicagoans, Levy restaurants, the restaurant behemoth that operates Spiaggia, bought franchise rights and opened a Campero in 2005 at the Brickyard mall at 2730 North Narragansett.
As a food smuggler, the fact that others would risk airplane air quality, and the ire of their fellow passengers, meant I had to check this chicken out.
From the clean tastes to the bright décor, it’s hard to believe this is fast food. Minutes before I arrived at the restaurant I was cranky from the long drive, and yet halfway through the ordering line I caught myself happily bobbing my head to the incessant mariachi meets carnival music piped in over the restaurant speakers, as if I were a Phish head on acid. Everything, including the cheery servers, is so carefully crafted, it almost borders on cultish.
Campero’s chicken is fresh, not frozen, and coated in an orange spice crust and deep-fried. There’s a whole bevy of scrumptious sides, including crispy fried savory plantains and juicy sweet pinto beans smothered with smoky bits of bacon and flecked with tomato, onion and cilantro.
Sure you can get a biscuit, but you should opt for the tortillas as your carb of choice. Once you make a visit to the salsa bar–which features zingy pico de gallo, jalapeno-infused green sauce, lime wedges and freshly chopped cilantro–you’ll have the makings for a perfect deep-fried chicken taco. For dessert there’s a pretty decent if maybe too wobbly flan, topped with a moat of brown caramel.
You wonder if this is what it was like to dine in a McDonald’s in California in the 1940s, at a fresh franchise poised to take over the world. There’s no way to know for sure, but one good thing I do know, is that there won’t be any in-flight grease stains or strange smells next time I need a Pollo Campero fix.
This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago in a slightly different form.