"Magical agua frescas, smoky grilled chicken at El Pollo Tapatio
Warning: They don’t serve tap water at El Pollo Tapatio. Ask for “agua” and they’ll fetch you a frosty bottle of purified water from the cooler. They don’t serve tequila either, even though the cross-eyed chicken on their sign is holding a bottle of the stiff liquor in one hand and a doffed sombrero in the other. No Mexican beers with limes in the necks or salt-rimmed margaritas either. At least not yet.
But it’s the drinks at this wee taqueria that will draw you back time after time. Ask for “aguas frescas” and you’ll get your choice of several of these light and fruity elixirs. Order the agua Tapatio, and brace your taste buds for an experience like none other. Sweet, rich and perfectly Pepto Bismol pink, this delicious but not too heavy concoction had us all guessing just what flavors we were tasting. Was it strawberry? Vanilla? Spices?
Only after we had downed our glasses did our waitress reveal that no berries were involved in the rosy color. The drink is mixed from horchata, a milky liquid made from ground rice, as well as condensed milk, cinnamon, bananas and, most intriguing, the steeped petals of three different flowering plants. Mystery solved, we had to order another.
But not before we had made our way through most of the menu. You could probably exist on a liquid diet here, but one sniff from the kitchen, and you’ll want some solid food as well. As the name and the sign suggest, this is the place for chicken, which is grilled to smoky perfection here. You’ll practically forget you’re in the deep freeze of another Hoosier winter when you sink your teeth into a juicy, char-grilled drumstick. And you can do it on the cheap: A whole chicken will run you less than $10.
Adjacent to a bustling convenience store on High School Road (where you’ll need to get cash if you assumed this restaurant would take a credit card), El Pollo Tapatio isn’t exactly long on atmosphere. While tidy, with quite friendly service, the place is cramped — only a few tables a little too close to each other and a clearly modest kitchen in back. TVs blare throughout the dining room. After a few minutes, your ears will start to ring with the trumpets and laugh track of a Spanish-language variety show. But you’ll forgive the place for the clamor once you feast on its tasty, authentic eats.
At least most of the food is tasty. Salsas, several in squeeze bottles, are surprisingly timid, though they’re rich with the fruity, smoky flavors of mild chilis. They pair well with warm, salty tortilla chips. Guacamole, on the other hand, is a pale, runny mess. More a sauce you’d poor over your burrito, it’s hardly something to dip your chips in. A tamale ($2) is quite straightforward, neither greasy and gummy nor particularly packed with flavor.
But almost everything else impressed, from the platters of chicken with rice and beans to super tacos ($2) with some of that smoky chicken with all of the fixings. Pork and steak tacos were equally good, nicely stuffed with flavorful, well-seasoned meat. A torta Milanesa ($4.25) was a whopper of a sandwich with a crispy, wafer-thin breaded steak, beans, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream on a big soft bun.
Desserts aren’t homemade but come from Merry’s Bakery, which has three Indianapolis locations. As such, they have a sort of watery texture of having waited a day or two for you. Flan isn’t as creamy as it might be, and a pan de tres leches, a traditional cake flavored with three milks, is a bit like a wet wedding cake with a thick layer of icing. After our sweet pink drinks, our teeth were practically singing with sugar. But that didn’t stop us from planning our return trip — perhaps the next day’s breakfast? — for another of those magic potions.
El Pollo Tapatio
4112 High School Road, Suite A
Monday-Sunday: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Two stars
Service: Four stars
Recommended dishes: Agua Tapatio, grilled chicken platters, tacos, torta Milanese