Mexican Worth the Trek 

Northern specialties, handmade flour tortillas, and 14 salsas at a pollo joint in west-suburban Northlake

Carlos Payan at Pollo Vagabundo

Carlos Payan at Pollo Vagabundo

eric futran

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Over the past year I've marveled more than once at the number of charcoal-fired chicken places in the city, particularly the high concentration on the northwest side. With a plethora of top-notch pollerias, from the Peruvian D'Candela to the Colombian Brasa Roja, a short hop away, why would any chicken eater be tempted to trek out to the western suburbs for pollo a la brasa?

Carlos Payan, proprietor of Northlake's Pollo Vagabundo, can think of a few good reasons: handmade flour tortillas, northern Mexican specialties underrepresented in the city, and 14—count 'em, 14—house-made salsas.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that flour-tortilla-bundled burritos are a Tex-Mex or Californian phenomenon. But the burrito originated in Chihuahua, where, as in much of northern Mexico, Spanish colonialists introduced cattle ranching and wheat crops, and flour tortillas came to enjoy almost as much popularity as those made from corn. A 50-year-old native of the northern state of Durango, Payan remembers his grandmother rolling out flour tortillas, smearing them with refried beans, and wrapping them in white towels for his grandfather to carry with him to the fields. Now he offers his customers fresh, blistered, 12-to-14-inch tortillas de harina as well as fresh handmade corn tortillas and gorditas.

Payan's current tortillera, Maria Dominquez—Doña Mari, as her coworkers call her—responded to a help wanted sign he taped to the front door four years ago. She just happens to hail from Payan's hometown. On busy weekends she's gone through as much as a 50-pound bag of masa a day. For the flour tortillas she makes a great ball of dough—sometimes twice a day—and then portions out smaller balls, flattening them first with a rolling pin and then with a DoughPro manual electric tortilla press on the thinnest setting. She turns these out in batches of 40 to 50.

Six years ago, when Pollo Vagabundo opened its doors in an area with a heavy concentration of northern Mexican immigrants, Payan's menu was simple, with charcoal-grilled chicken in the style of "Durango y Chihuahua" as the draw. Over time he supplemented this with a variety of burritos, tacos, and platillos, including deshebrada, shredded dried beef in tomatillo salsa, a specialty of Durango. His guisado (a red beef stew) is his mom's recipe, but he came up with the tomatillo sauce he cooks his lengua in.

click to enlarge The salsa bar at Pollo Vagabundo

His salsa lineup has evolved too. Payan started out with four basic salsas on offer gratis—pretty much what every Mexican family makes. There was a pico de gallo, a basic salsa rojo, a verde made with stewed green tomatoes, and a special salsa just for the chicken made with raw tomato, onion, jalapeño, and garlic.

But gradually he devised his own formulas—storing them entirely in his head—until he reached the current total of 14. They're lined up on a sneeze-guard-protected island in front of the counter. He says he could add three or four more but needs the space to put out extra lemon and onions for his weekend menudo special. It's hard to resist ladling some of each and every one into a little paper cup, no matter how gluttonous that seems.

The range is broad, but the differences between them can be minute. There's simmered tomatillo-jalapeño and grilled tomatillo-jalapeño. There's raw, simmered, and grilled tomato, and one made from raw jalapeño that Payan smashes with a stone to maximize flavor and punch. His hottest is a brick orange habanero, jalapeño, and arbol combo. And his latest, unveiled about a month ago, starts with the dark red guajillo-like chile called the pulla. Two salsas never make it to the bar: a salsa negra reserved for a Guanajuato-influenced version of deshebrada, and the tomatillo salsa he uses on the lengua.

Guacamole is made to order, and four of his salsas need to be made fresh daily due to their short shelf life—two avocado-based numbers (one chunky, one smooth), his basic pico de gallo, and a cactus-based pico de gallo. To keep the current rotation stocked, he shows up for work every day around 4 AM. But he has a short commute: his house is just across the busy street. "I live here," he says. "I just sleep over there."   

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