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Thursday, July 23, 2009

OK Corral

East-end joint does chicken right for cheap

Posted on Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Looking at the various dining options in and around the University-Alafaya corridor, then thinking back on how French fries and gravy purchased from a white truck sustained me for most of my university years in Toronto, I can't help but feel a tad resentful of UCF students, who seem to have an array of dining options in close proximity to their campus. Not that those French fries lathered in thick, dark gravy were bad, mind you ' in fact, just thinking about them elicits a salivary response ' but UCF collegians have it good.

El Corral is one chicken joint that knows how to properly roast pollo in the Peruvian style. And while the owners of El Corral happen to be Colombian, the comida served up at this former Pizza Hut comprises the best South America has to offer. The basket of empanadas ($8) alone is worth the visit: lightly fried, freshly made shells enveloping cheese along with ground beef, chicken and guava. The beef and chicken pockets were superbly crisp and savory, while gooey guava empanadas could've been saved for dessert. Arepitas ($5), mini corn-flour fritter discs, needed a salsa or chunky chutney to complete them ' unfortunately, neither the salty hot sauce (a derivative of Peruvian aji sauce) nor the saltier yellow-green 'secretâ?� sauce added anything to the Venezuelan corn cakes.

But we came specifically for the chicken, and as far as their pollo a la brasa is concerned, it passed the ultimate test. The white meat attained a balanced succulence ' not desiccated, not exceedingly juicy. A variety of combos are available for less than $9, all of which come with a heaping serving of rice (yellow or white), beans (red or black) and a side. I opted for their half-chicken combo ($8.45) with sweet plantains. Apart from the slightly overdone black beans, everything on this plate was palate-perfect, particularly the rub on that spit-fired bird. The plantains, it should be noted, were nicely caramelized, yet not overcooked. Estofado ($10.40), a hearty beef stew blending lima beans, yuca, peas, carrots, corn and green beans, is a comfort dish that, once mixed with white rice, yields a gumbo-like consistency. The dish is well-seasoned without being spicy; the side of fried yuca, regrettably, was a dry and mealy failure. At first blush, the arroz con pollo ($8.95) resembled a dense Puerto Rican mofongo, but the sofrito-tinged hillock easily gave way in fluffy forkfuls of zesty chicken and rice. 'Tropical potato,â?� the side of choice, featured roasted potatoes topped with shreds of cheese and pico de gallo.

Creamy tumbao ($2.50) is an absolute must. The sweet blend of passion-fruit pulp and milk neared empty by the time the food arrived, and I just as well could've ordered another if I didn't need to eat. Whether you opt for mango, soursop, pineapple or strawberry, just know it's an irresistibly refreshing beverage. I did resist ordering tres leches cake ($2.50), only because they were fresh out, but the flan ($2) was spot-on creamy and rich, with enough caramel to sip once the custard was gone.

Expectations are often lowered when it comes to counter-service restaurants, but the service here was quick, friendly and helpful. The flat-screens airing soccer and ESPN Deportes give life to a nondescript interior conducive to fast turnarounds. But given the quality of the El Corral's fare, those fast turnarounds will only result in quick returns.


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