Rico Pollo won't fly on Federal, but San Antonio Mexican Bakery rises above the fray

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In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on my next stop.... For all the taquerias, pho shops, diners and loncheras that make Federal Boulevard such a rewarding food destination, Rico Pollo has never beckoned me. Chicken just isn't that interesting. Still, I will concede that when chicken is done right, if the skin is crisped or even slightly charred from the oven or grill and the juices mingle just right with the seasonings, it can be a satisfying and inexpensive meal. So that's where I set the bar when I walked in at lunchtime on a sunny Saturday. Cheap and tasty -- how hard can that be?

See also: - Cafe Chihuahua is pregnant with possibilities - Andy's Kitchen Asian Express is worth a risky left on Federal - At Granny Annie, the Southern cuisine is pretty peachy - At 4G's on Federal, the food is not the topic of conversation

I was even tempted to skip Rico Pollo and claim the "chain restaurant" defense. From what I can gather, there are at least three Rico Pollo shops in the metro area. But they don't seem to be related to restaurants with similar names in other parts of the country, so I stuck with my plan of covering local (but not national) chains: places like this one, Bubba Chinos and Jack-n-Grill. What this really means is that I'm taking one for the team here.

Entering Rico Pollo, I was greeted by a shabby interior and the strong aroma -- unsurprisingly -- of grilled chicken. I had a full view of the kitchen from the dining area, which I'm not convinced was a good idea. While I ordered my meal, several whole chickens landed with a thud on the open grill -- thrown from the open door of a walk-in cooler several feet away. I had just watched Beasts of the Southern Wild the night before, so I half-expected to hear someone shout "Feed up time! Feed up!"

Dark meat is generally moister and more flavorful than white, so I ordered the quarter-chicken dark meat combo, which came with soupy, completely unseasoned refried beans, what looked and tasted like instant rice, some steamed corn tortillas, and two pieces of marinated and grilled chicken -- a drumstick and an odd cut that was part thigh and part back.

The seasoning on the chicken was barely detectable and the grilling had not imparted any additional flavor. It was properly cooked, but rather than firm and juicy, the chicken was oily and mushy. Although a grilled green onion and whole jalapeño had been added as garnish, the plate was a sad mess.

The name of the game here is chicken, chicken and more chicken, so deep-fried flautas and smothered burritos are also available -- stuffed with, you guessed it, chicken.

So much for low expectations.

Fortunately, I was mentally prepared to scout for more food -- and salvation awaited just a few doors up the sidewalk. The yeasty aroma of fresh-baked treats wafting from the San Antonio Mexican Bakery and Juice Bar held the promise of absolving the sins of my depressing lunch.

As at many Mexican bakeries, the variety of breads and pastries at San Antonio is almost overwhelming. In well-stocked panaderias, I love walking from case to case with my cafeteria tray and metal kitchen tongs, choosing from mostly unlabeled shelves of buns, rolls, turnovers, biscuits and cookies. For about half of what I paid for an unsatisfying meal at Rico Pollo, I was able to fill a sack with treats that included a pecan tart that would put most Southern grannies to shame, a pumpkin empanada, a flaky cinnamon crisp and a bolillo con queso y jalapeño (the queso being cream cheese, in this case).

I saw no evidence that the juice bar was operational, though: no menu, blenders, jars of aguas frescas, or bubblers full of horchata or jugo de naranja. Hopefully this was just an oversight on my part, because fresh juice and pastries seem like the perfect way to join my Federal Boulevard neighbors on a Saturday morning, especially after a night of overindulging. I will in solidarity don my flannel pajama pants and Ugg boots, dart past the charred-fat aromas emanating from Rico Pollo, and give in to the temptation of San Antonio's baked goods.

Now if only I could get a good cup of coffee around here.

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