Convenience meets quality at Fresa’s, the newly opened drive-through on North Lamar Boulevard downtown. The chicken al carbon restaurant, opened last Monday by well-known restaurateur Larry McGuire (of Perla’s, Lamberts, Elizabeth St. Cafe and recently, Jeffrey’s), has experienced a deluge of diverse customers ranging from hipster professionals, suit-and-jacket businessmen and regular ol’ middle-aged Austinites.
The concept is that of a traditional al carbon restaurant. You can order either a half or a whole charcoal grilled chicken and it comes with house-made tortillas, charro beans, Mexican rice, grilled onions and jalapeno and two salsas.
But Fresa’s differentiates itself from chains like El Pollo Regio by offering trendy flavor combinations (the chicken is seasoned either with achiote and citrus or oregano and cracked pepper) and taking pride in the fact that all of their chickens are supplied by Peeler Farms, a local free-range farm that doesn’t cage or medicate its birds.
Besides the grilled chicken, they also offer tortas (including one for vegetarians), salads and sides — Mexican street corn, grilled vegetables and guacamole. They sell beer by the six-pack and wine by the bottle, along with a house made margarita mix — in other words, no need to make a second stop at the gas station on the way home.
The drive-through is the best option if you’re going to pick up your chicken and eat it, say, on a picnic bench at the nearby Duncan Park or in the nonjudgmental comfort of your home (go for it: take home a whole chicken and forget about the silverware and the napkins).
One obvious setback of the Fresa’s arrangement is that the drive-through is not clearly marked. It’s easy for commuters on Lamar Boulevard to think they are turning into a driveway that leads to more parking in the back of the restaurant, only to get stuck in a line of cars all idling patiently in wait of chicken. There’s no way to get out of the line once someone has driven in behind you and if it’s lunch time, you could be stuck for a half hour or more.
By the time you inch up to the speaker, you might as well order a chicken, or at least a scoop of made-from-scratch helado (ice cream). Although the long wait was frustrating, the food quickly makes up for it.
On my trip to Fresa’s, I ordered the half chicken seasoned with achiote and citrus with a side order of guacamole and chips. Through the sliding window, a employee handed me a brown paper bag and I caught a glimpse of the rows of plump, red, naked birds sweltering on top of the large open grill, sparks occasionally exploding around them. The smell of roasting chicken emanated from the bag.
The chicken was succulent, juicy and tender. It tore easily from the bone and was intensely flavorful. The seasoning was well-balanced and didn’t detract from the savory chicken’s natural flavor. The warm tortillas tasted of freshly ground corn. They soaked up the juice of the chicken and the grilled onions well.
Fresa’s charro beans were good — salty and substantial — and the Mexican rice was tasty too, although not life-changing. The jalapeno-lime salsa, on the other hand, was phenomenal. It was spicy, creamy and perfect for dipping the pieces of chicken that didn’t fit in the four corn tortillas given.
The salsa roja was less impressive, but a familiar throwback to more traditional al carbon restaurants. The guacamole was pureed into a smooth and creamy dip that was good, although less avocado-forward than chunkier guacs.
The meal consisted of plenty of food to share between two people (with guacamole left over), and while the meal costs nearly twice as much as El Pollo Rico, a lunch at Fresa’s isn’t too hard on the pocketbook when shared. Expect to spend between $8 and $10 a person without beer or wine.
While the long wait time was a strike against the restaurant, the quality of the food at Fresa’s far outweighs the temporary inconvenience.
Printed on Monday, April 23, 2012 as: Cluckin' Good Chicken