Winter is fast approaching. Fortunately, Avanti’s new concept in Boulder invites diners to escape to the south thanks to the vibrant flavors of Costa Rican chef Byron Gomez, who opened Pollo Tico on November 2.
Gomez’s culinary journey begins with humble beginnings. Born in Costa Rica, he immigrated to Long Island when he was eight years old. As a teenager, he felt his academic prospects were limited due to his undocumented status, and a stint at Burger King helped shape his desire to work with his hands.
After graduating from high school, Gomez moved to the Bronx with less than a thousand dollars under her belt. Ready to venture beyond fast food, he ventured into the kitchen of a small family restaurant, where he learned a myriad of new techniques – making curries, cooking with a tandoor oven and baking Naan bread. During that time, he came across a Craigslist ad for a cooking position under celebrity French chef Daniel Boulud. “It took me about a month to apply,” Gomez says, recalling the apprehension he felt about his degrees. Fortunately, he came to recognize the transitional effect this opportunity could have on his career.
Gomez worked for Boulud for five years, and the distinguished chef became his mentor, instilling diligence in the young cook while inspiring him to test the limits of his creativity and skill. “I remember one thing Daniel always told me,” Gomez recalled, “If you want to be the best, you have to work with the best.” of the best restaurants in the country.
In 2017, he was working as a sous chef at New York’s Eleven Madison Park when the three-star Michelin establishment was awarded first place at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Gomez spent several seasons traveling with the culinary team at EMP, opening pop-up concepts in the Hamptons and Aspen. Colorado’s landscape and lifestyle had a huge impact on him, and he moved west in 2019, accepting a position as executive chef of 7908, a now-closed supper club in Aspen. When COVID forced dining halls to close, Gomez seized the opportunity to test her skills on a new stage — this time in front of cameras and judges on Excellent chef.
Pollo Tico represents an exciting new chapter in Gomez’s career as he ventures into chef ownership for the first time. He has spent the past two years reflecting on his cultural and ancestral roots, examining how his past has shaped his present, and carving out his place in the culinary world.
Pollo Tico is an expression of his immigrant history. He is delighted to cook food that reflects multiple sides of himself; Gomez wants to inspire curiosity among customers with its new fast-casual concept. He pivoted outside of the realm of fine dining, immersing himself in the Boulder community, serving dishes that are inclusive and accessible to everyone.
As the name suggests, Pollo Tico’s menu features Costa Rican chicken (“tico” is a nickname for a Costa Rican native). If you look over the counter, you might spot the tan birds slowly spinning in the rotisserie oven. The process begins with whole birds being treated in a 24-hour bath in a spicy garlic-citrus brine. The chicken is then air dried before cooking to ensure a deliciously crispy skin.
Before reaching the rotisserie, the birds are slathered with Costa Rica’s national condiment, Salsa Lizano, a hot sauce made with vegetables, molasses and spices. The icing slowly caramelizes as it bakes, resulting in an incredibly savory starter with complex flavors. The chickens are served in half and quarter portions, accompanied by a side dish of your choice ($14 – $18.50).
Tender bits of shredded meat pop up throughout the menu in comfort dishes such as arroz con pollo ($15.50) and as a garnish on patacón – fried plantain topped with red cabbage, pickled vegetables and a sweet amarillo chili sauce ($13.50). For an additional $5, chicken can also be added to both salad options (otherwise vegetarian) ($12). Both salads include unique components such as marinated pineapple, hearts of palm and requesón, a creamy fresh cheese.
A selection of stellar side dishes completes the menu. Don’t miss the fried yuca ($4), chunky chunks of the starchy root vegetable that’s fried until golden brown, generously seasoned with salt and served with a tangy salsa verde.
Gallo pinto is perhaps the side that best represents the staple of Costa Rican cuisine ($4). Costa Ricans often eat the traditional combination of rice and beans at several meals throughout the day. Black beans are cooked for hours while white rice is cooked separately and then cooled completely resulting in fluffy individual beans that are finally sautéed in pork fat alongside red peppers, onions and beans cooked. Gomez emphasizes the complexity of preparing the dish, despite its simple ingredients. “There’s a technique behind it all,” he says, acknowledging the process. “They are different rice and beans.”
Pollo Tico’s menu is presented in Spanglish, an intentional nod to the two cultures that have shaped Gomez’s identity. Item descriptions are peppered with ingredients that may be unfamiliar to diners – another intentional choice the chef made in an effort to showcase authentic Costa Rican cuisine.
Gomez also takes this educational approach beyond the confines of her kitchen. In 2014, he was granted employment status and authorization under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This life-changing event had a monumental effect on the upward trajectory of his career. Today, DACA remains in the news as it is the subject of ongoing litigation in America’s top courts. Gomez speaks out by sharing her immigration experience; he hopes to raise awareness of the importance of DACA, promoting his story as a prime example of the positive effect the program has had on a generation of immigrants.
Gomez’s positive mindset and engaging personality are contagious. Its courage, resilience and discipline are reflected in both its history and its extraordinary food, so head to Pollo Tico, grab an imperial beer at the bar and experience a little pura vida right here on the Front Range.
Pollo Tico is located on the ground floor of Avanti at 1401 Pearl Street in Boulder and is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, visit boulder.avantifandb.com.
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