Here’s where to find some of the Southwest Detroit’s best, smokiest Mexican grills

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click to enlarge Birds splayed on the grill at Southwest Detroit's Pollos Los Gallos. - Photo by Tom Perkins
Photo by Tom Perkins
Birds splayed on the grill at Southwest Detroit's Pollos Los Gallos.

Detroit is not a city famous for its aromas. Just whiff the acrid petroleum coke breezes blowing in from the riverfront, the singeing stink belched out by downtown’s sewer system, or the poison gases spewed by the incinerator near the Interstates 75 and 94 interchange for samples of what we breath. No: Detroit is not easy on the nose.

But it isn’t all bad, and Southwest Detroit holds the some of the city’s finest olfactory oases. Drive into the neighborhood on Vernor from Interstate 75 and the smell of smoky, slow-grilled chicken grabs your attention, affixing your gaze on the source: Taqueria El Rey’s grill trailer. Continue west into the more industrialized side of the neighborhood on Dix and there's a similar scent, billowing out of a porch filled with behemoth grills next to Pollos Los Gallos's nondescript little building. Head through the Junction and Toledo intersection and the grill at Los Corrales beckons.

And the aromas do not deceive: The flavors of slow-grilled Mexican chicken are among the finest in a part of town known for serious eating. Each grill takes its own approach and cooks with its own flame, so we spent a few meals taking notes on the best of Southwest's charcoal-y, mahogany birds.

(Check out more photos of Southwest Detroit’s best grills here.)

Taqueria El Rey

click to enlarge Slow-grilled chicken at Taqueria El Rey - Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins
Slow-grilled chicken at Taqueria El Rey

El Rey (The King) is arguably such. The key here is the marriage of succulent meat; the charcoal and smoke; and the compelling 10-spice adobo blend. It's wonderful, but the immediate question that pops to mind is "How does something that’s sitting on the grill for so long stay so moist?" El Rey birds are partially cooked in the oven before hitting the rack in the restaurant's big barrel BBQ. Once there, they're splayed high above hot coals for a few minutes. After cooking to a golden brown, the bird is chopped up and flipped above hotter coals that occasionally spit flames as the grill master applies paintbrush coats of the fiery red adobo or barbecue sauce.

The cooks steadfastly refused to reveal any secrets when I inquired, though the 10 spices, vinegar, and red chiles drive the flavor. El Rey’s chimney system shoots most of the smoke out of the grill trailer, but the meats’ edges are slightly burnt, and the smoky, charcoal flavors are retained.

Whole bird dinners served with 10 pieces of chicken, rice, beans, tortillas, and plenty of delicious homemade salsas/accompaniments are $11.50. Half birds are $7. El Rey’s amazing tacos also worth checking out, as are the seafood options and the ribs. In fact, its menu is solid from top to bottom.

Pollos Los Gallos

click to enlarge The grilling porch at Los Gallos. - Photo by Tom Perkins
Photo by Tom Perkins
The grilling porch at Los Gallos.

Los Gallos’ birds are some of Southwest’s smokiest, and it’s easy to see why when approaching the humble building that sits across from a shipping yard on Dix. Owner Ricardo Hernandez slow-cooks his chicken on an outdoor, open air grilling porch holding several huge grills. On a recent windy winter morning, stepping into the porch felt like jumping into a swirling brush fire. It’s one of the wilder, most visually interesting kitchens in Detroit, but it’s not for show – Los Gallos’ chicken captures and absorbs that smoky flavor, and that’s what sets its dishes apart.

But it's worth noting that Hernandez's chicken isn't one-dimensional. He manages to keep the bird moist while paint-brushing in the flavor of a 20-spice sauce packed with guajillo chile, oregano, garlic, salt, and more.

While it may appear he's a natural born-griller, Hernandez didn't learned the trade until moving here from the Mexican state of Jalisco to work in an auto factory. Ten years ago, he took over Los Gallos from a friend, and found working the grills more fun than working on the line. While there were roadside grills in Jalisco, Hernandez says the birds at Los Gallos have more in common with those in Sinaloa, though he’s offering a slight variation that’s all his own.

Los Gallos’ dining room is also worth a mention. It's a no frills, bare bones space, and that’s a refreshing change in a part of town where lively, noisy restaurants are the norm. A few old booths line the wall, and pop crates, stray stools, palettes, and boxes of carryout containers take up the rest of the floor. It feels more like a large stock room than dining room, and for that — and the chicken — Los Gallos is one of Southwest’s best spots.

A full dinner with rice, beans, tortillas, salsas, and perfectly pickled onions and habaneros is $12, though half a chicken is enough for two people.

click to enlarge Half a bird at Los Gallos. - Photo by Tom Perkins
Photo by Tom Perkins
Half a bird at Los Gallos.

Los Corrales

You know good things are in store when you’re greeted near the entrance by a smoking, submarine-sized grill. Like Gallos, Los Corrales' chicken is heavier on the smoke, but perfectly flavored with its own spice blend. I tried to talk with the owners about their grills, but a manager said they don’t speak enough English to do so. A fun video of a Los Corrales cook flipping chickens is on the restaurant's Facebook page.

click to enlarge The grill porch at Los Gallos. - Photo by Tom Perkins
Photo by Tom Perkins
The grill porch at Los Gallos.

(Check out more photos of Southwest Detroit’s best grills here.)
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