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Guatemalan chicken pulls mayor to Corona

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Fans of the long-awaited franchise lined up around the block, waiting in some cases for hours just to get a taste of the lightly breaded, juicy chicken cuts dusted with special Latin seasonings that have become the restaurant's hallmark.

"My uncle's been telling me (about the restaurant) since they opened in Los Angeles," said 22-year-old Jamaica resident Alex Rosales.

George Ramos, 21, also of Jamaica, stood right next to Rosales, braving the line that began queuing up more than three hours before the 1 p.m. opening last Thursday. Asked why there was all the fuss, Ramos said simply: "The spices on the chicken are different. It's a very unique taste to it."

The event - complete with street performers, giveaways and a moon bounce - drew Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made headlines before for his particular gastronomic pleasures.

"Who would of thought it for chicken," Bloomberg said, surveying the assembled crowd.

Pollo Campero's arrival could not have come a moment too soon, Bloomberg said. "I'm tired of carrying all this chicken back when I go down south."

The mayor was not alone in his assessment.

Pollo Campero made a run for the border after selling more than 3 million to-go orders to U.S.-bound travelers in airports in Latin America. The first U.S. restaurant opened in Los Angeles in April 2002, raking in more than a $1 million in the first 47 days it was open.

Bloomberg was the first paying customer at the Corona store, forking over cash for what appeared to be two plates of chicken and a side dish.

Pollo Campero - "country chicken" in English - is a taste sensation that has swept across Central and South America since it was founded 33 years ago, garnering a loyal following that knows no international boundaries.

"I had this chicken in 1982 in Guatemala. ... It was the best chicken I ever tasted," City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) said while ordering just two chicken breasts because, he said, "I'm going low on the carbs."

Maria Romeu, a publicist for the company in New York, said the restaurant's taste secret is a special marinating press by which the fresh - never frozen - chicken is literally infused with marinade. The chicken sits in specially designed containers to "mature" for no less than an hour, she said. Then it is lightly breaded, seasoned and fried.

The taste sensation seems to have worked for the company, which has grown to operate almost 200 restaurants in Latin America and the United States.

After making it into the Houston and Washington, D.C. markets, Pollo Campero's Corona store - expected to create 160 full-time jobs - is New York's first.

During the first day of operations, Romeu said the store served more than 3,500 people.

"Wait till the weekend. It's going to be insane," Romeu said. "(The line is) going to go on for blocks."

All told, the company expected more than 10,000 people to have passed through Pollo Campero's doors by closing time on Sunday, she said.

Neil Colley, the Westchester, N.Y.-based entrepreneur who beat out a number of competitors during a two-year process to secure the franchise rights, said he selected Corona for the restaurant because "it's the heart of the Central American community."

Another Pollo Campero will swing open its doors next month in Brooklyn, and a third will arrive at 116th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan by next fall, Colley said.

Colley expects to be running as many as 20 restaurants in New York within the next three or four years.

"We think this will appeal to the greater Hispanic market," Colley said. "They'll identify with the Latino/Hispanic flavor."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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