Arts

Customers follow their noses to Michoacán Market's charcoal-grilled chicken

Couple aims to serve something delicious, fresh and affordable to customers, mostly working-class Latino families

When Janet and Ruben Robles first started cooking whole chickens to bring in more business to their small Menlo Park market, they smartly set up the grill outside alongside Middlefield Road. They didn't have to do any promotion; the sight and smell alone of street-side mesquite-grilled chicken attracted customers.

They came "por el olor," Ruben said in Spanish — for the smell. Some days, the couple sold more than 300 of the spatchcocked, Michoacan-style pollos al carbon.

In 2008, the county asked them to move the grill inside, which required new permits and a renovation process that took a year, during which they couldn't sell any chicken.

"People asked every day about the chicken," Janet said in Spanish.

Now, they cook the chicken over charcoal on a large grill in the back of the small, neighborhood market, but the alluring scent of smoked-kissed meat still billows out through a vent into the surrounding streets, drawing in both longtime and new customers.

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The couple opened Michoacan Produce Market in 2002. Janet, who is from the Mexican state of Michoacán, wanted to bring her home country's style of grilling chicken to the United States. But more than that, she wanted to cook something delicious, fresh and affordable for the neighborhood market's clientele, who are mostly working-class Latino families.

"My goal is to make something for people who work," she said. "The women who clean houses, who come here for their food, so they don't have to cook."

Their busiest times are weekends and holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. The two weeks leading up to President Donald Trump's threatened ICE raids earlier this month were strangely quiet at the market, Janet said. She thought it was an indication that people were fearful.

They've only raised the price of the chicken once, earlier this year, to compensate for the increasing cost of ingredients. They used to sell one whole chicken, which feeds four to five people, with fresh salsa, rice, beans and tortillas for $18.39. It's now $20.25, still a major steal for the amount of food and its quality. Or, you can get a chicken, salsa and tortillas for $14.79. The market accepts food stamps.

"Queremos algo para toda la gente" — "We want something for all people," Janet said.

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Janet cooks the chicken, salsa, Spanish rice and beans fresh every day. The chickens are rubbed in a secret spice mixture and grilled for 45 minutes until they're charred on the outside and juicy on the inside. She's less secretive about her salsa recipe, which includes grilled tomatillos and japones chiles, and her silky pinto beans, cooked with jalapeños, onions and a little bit of oil.

The only thing they don't make by hand is the corn tortillas; the labor would be too much for the mom-and-pop business to handle, Janet said.

But, like any good chef, she's uncompromising about quality. When fresh tomatillos go up in price, Ruben suggests that they buy canned ones instead. Janet refuses.

The pollo al carbon is best enjoyed piping hot off the grill. (Get to the market around 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the freshest batches.) The market sells all the other accoutrements one might need for an epic taco feast: avocados and limes to make guacamole, chicharrones by the pound, wheels of cotija cheese, cold Jarritos and Modelo beers to drink and paletas (frozen fruit pops) for dessert.

The couple recounted a favorite story about a customer who returned after picking up a chicken to bring home to his family. The smell was so enticing he picked at the chicken on his way home until there wasn't enough left for his family, and he was sent back to the market for another one.

Michoacan Produce Market

3380 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park

650-368-9226

michoacanproducemarket.com

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

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Customers follow their noses to Michoacán Market's charcoal-grilled chicken

Couple aims to serve something delicious, fresh and affordable to customers, mostly working-class Latino families

by Elena Kadvany / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jul 25, 2019, 3:34 pm

When Janet and Ruben Robles first started cooking whole chickens to bring in more business to their small Menlo Park market, they smartly set up the grill outside alongside Middlefield Road. They didn't have to do any promotion; the sight and smell alone of street-side mesquite-grilled chicken attracted customers.

They came "por el olor," Ruben said in Spanish — for the smell. Some days, the couple sold more than 300 of the spatchcocked, Michoacan-style pollos al carbon.

In 2008, the county asked them to move the grill inside, which required new permits and a renovation process that took a year, during which they couldn't sell any chicken.

"People asked every day about the chicken," Janet said in Spanish.

Now, they cook the chicken over charcoal on a large grill in the back of the small, neighborhood market, but the alluring scent of smoked-kissed meat still billows out through a vent into the surrounding streets, drawing in both longtime and new customers.

The couple opened Michoacan Produce Market in 2002. Janet, who is from the Mexican state of Michoacán, wanted to bring her home country's style of grilling chicken to the United States. But more than that, she wanted to cook something delicious, fresh and affordable for the neighborhood market's clientele, who are mostly working-class Latino families.

"My goal is to make something for people who work," she said. "The women who clean houses, who come here for their food, so they don't have to cook."

Their busiest times are weekends and holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. The two weeks leading up to President Donald Trump's threatened ICE raids earlier this month were strangely quiet at the market, Janet said. She thought it was an indication that people were fearful.

They've only raised the price of the chicken once, earlier this year, to compensate for the increasing cost of ingredients. They used to sell one whole chicken, which feeds four to five people, with fresh salsa, rice, beans and tortillas for $18.39. It's now $20.25, still a major steal for the amount of food and its quality. Or, you can get a chicken, salsa and tortillas for $14.79. The market accepts food stamps.

"Queremos algo para toda la gente" — "We want something for all people," Janet said.

Janet cooks the chicken, salsa, Spanish rice and beans fresh every day. The chickens are rubbed in a secret spice mixture and grilled for 45 minutes until they're charred on the outside and juicy on the inside. She's less secretive about her salsa recipe, which includes grilled tomatillos and japones chiles, and her silky pinto beans, cooked with jalapeños, onions and a little bit of oil.

The only thing they don't make by hand is the corn tortillas; the labor would be too much for the mom-and-pop business to handle, Janet said.

But, like any good chef, she's uncompromising about quality. When fresh tomatillos go up in price, Ruben suggests that they buy canned ones instead. Janet refuses.

The pollo al carbon is best enjoyed piping hot off the grill. (Get to the market around 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the freshest batches.) The market sells all the other accoutrements one might need for an epic taco feast: avocados and limes to make guacamole, chicharrones by the pound, wheels of cotija cheese, cold Jarritos and Modelo beers to drink and paletas (frozen fruit pops) for dessert.

The couple recounted a favorite story about a customer who returned after picking up a chicken to bring home to his family. The smell was so enticing he picked at the chicken on his way home until there wasn't enough left for his family, and he was sent back to the market for another one.

Michoacan Produce Market

3380 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park

650-368-9226

michoacanproducemarket.com

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Comments

Mark Weiss
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jul 31, 2019 at 5:41 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jul 31, 2019 at 5:41 pm

In another version of this there was a headline “smoke kissed chicken” and in this day and age of “me too” my first thought was, did chicken give permission? but also could be an alternative answer to the old ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’ shaggy dog dealio


JR Winslow
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 1, 2019 at 11:53 am
JR Winslow, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Aug 1, 2019 at 11:53 am

No secret to preparing Mexican-style grilled chicken...a squeeze of lime + salt.

This is almost akin to the 'mystery' of using oregano & basil in southern Italian cooking...no big deal.

Anyone can do it...not exactly rocket science.


Hmmm
East Palo Alto
on Aug 1, 2019 at 12:31 pm
Hmmm, East Palo Alto
on Aug 1, 2019 at 12:31 pm

Oh, JR, you don't actually know what they use, and if you did, who cares? What matters here is the delicious final product.


Pollo Mexicano
another community
on Aug 1, 2019 at 12:39 pm
Pollo Mexicano, another community
on Aug 1, 2019 at 12:39 pm

> No secret to preparing Mexican-style grilled chicken...a squeeze of lime + salt.

^^^ We get our Mexican-style Chicken at Pollo Loco & yes, lime is a key ingredient.

People make too big a deal out of grilled chicken whether its teriyaki, traditionally barbecued or Mexican-style.

> ...who cares? What matters here is the delicious final product.

^^^ As long as the chicken isn't burnt or raw. Who cares?
It's just chicken.


Cooking Chicken Is No Big Deal
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 1, 2019 at 3:19 pm
Cooking Chicken Is No Big Deal, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 1, 2019 at 3:19 pm

> As long as the chicken isn't burnt or raw. Who cares? It's just chicken.

^^^ Yep. Toss some rosemary over the fire and into the marinade & now you have Middle-Eastern grilled chicken.

5 spice = Chinese grilled chicken.

A paprika/oregano/saffron rub easily equates to Spanish grilled chicken.

Cooking chicken is no big deal. Just ask Colonel Sanders.


Get some
Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 1, 2019 at 4:09 pm
Get some, Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 1, 2019 at 4:09 pm

"Cooking chicken is no big deal. Just ask Colonel Sanders."

But selling chicken to the 10s of millions people who love eating chicken is a huge deal, just look at the $ the same good Colonel (and so many others) rakes in each year. It's just money though. Its no big deal.
I'm gonna go spend some right now on some tasty chicken...but it's just food, no big deal. LOL :)


Stacy
East Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2019 at 4:02 pm
Stacy, East Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2019 at 4:02 pm

What a wonderful piece highlighting this local gem and celebrating the vision and skill of the market's owners. I can't wait to go back!


Cooking Chicken Is No Big Deal
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2019 at 1:57 pm
Cooking Chicken Is No Big Deal, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2019 at 1:57 pm

Another reason for so many over-hyped grilling/marinading techniques to cooking & selling chicken...mass produced, commercially grown chickens are bland tasting. Just ask anyone who grew up on a farm & slaughtered their own range-raised poultry...a major difference in 'natural' flavor.

Foster farms is the worst in terms of bland-tasting chicken & ironically the most popular brand along with Tyson's...another chicken factory.

It's now wonder the Colonel has to rely on (11) herbs & spices to sell his mundane offerings. Natural chickens have more flavor but are more expensive to produce.

The corporate as well as private restaurants strive to keep their food costs down & consumers are the one's that endure the compromise (and pay).


Love this place!
Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 7, 2019 at 2:07 pm
Love this place!, Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 7, 2019 at 2:07 pm

These folks put up some rock solid tasty yard-bird. No hassles, easy one-stop weekday pickup meal. We hit it up about 3 times a month.


Mass produced Chickens Are CRAP
Los Altos
on Aug 8, 2019 at 5:01 pm
Mass produced Chickens Are CRAP, Los Altos
on Aug 8, 2019 at 5:01 pm

@Cooking Chicken Is No Big Deal

Agreed. With a naturally grown chicken all you need is some ground black pepper + maybe a bit of sage and some paprika for roasting.

The Colonel was on a 'cover-up- mission & KFC uses the cheapest/mass produced chicken they can find. Corporate ROI also enters into the picture.

The same can be said of farm-sourced natural eggs...more flavorful with darker yolks.

Eating/cooking in mainstream America has become a compromise unless one goes back to the basics.


Crispy Skin
Evergreen Park
on Aug 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm
Crispy Skin, Evergreen Park
on Aug 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm

I think the word has gotten out because it's beginning to get more crowded at times, but yah, delicious, like everyone but the anti-chicken brigade says.
Munchy stuff


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