The name Don Pollo Mexican Gourmet speaks for itself.
“Pollo” is the Spanish word for “chicken,” which owner Cesar Ruiz considers his specialty.
Ruiz chose “Don” because, “In the Hispanic community, ‘Don’ is the word for respect. And I want people to know that they will receive the best food and service when they visit.”
Ruiz opened his Eden restaurant last December, after opening two successful fast casual restaurants in West Valley under the name of Don Pollo Mexican Grill.
After visiting the Ogden Valley a few times last summer, “I fell in love with the area, and I realized there aren’t that many restaurant options up here,” he said.
When Ruiz saw the space next to the Mad Moose Café was for rent, he decided to make his move. Instead of his previous fast casual format of the West Valley stores, he chose to do a sit-down, full-service restaurant.
Opening in December, he assumed it was the low season and business would be slow and grow gradually. But he was slammed with customers right from the start.
“I was surprised it was so busy, and I struggled in the beginning,” Ruiz said.
That’s how he met Shauna Miller, an Ogden Valley-based business consultant who became the restaurant’s manager.
“I came down here to eat the second night it was open, and it was crazy busy,” Miller said. “They messed up my order. But it was the best street taco I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to Mexico at least 30 times. I said, ‘I will be back to help you, and I’m bringing my daughter with me.’ ”
With sit-down dining choices limited in the Ogden Valley, “He didn’t realize how excited people were to have a full-service restaurant,” Miller said. “Some people came in and sat at their tables for hours.”
To meet the customer demand, Miller has been hiring and training more staff — a challenge in Utah’s current job market.
So far, some of the restaurant’s top-selling dishes are the street tacos (a choice of chicken, asada, pastor, carnitas, chorizo or shrimp) and asada fries — fresh-cut fries topped with Angus steak, melted cheese, grilled jalapeños, grilled onions, sour cream and cotija cheese.
You’ll also find typical Mexican fare such as burritos, enchiladas, nachos and tamales.
But Ruiz wants more customers to get better acquainted with his two signature dishes — Sinaloa chicken and Molcajete.
Sinaloa chicken, originating in his wife’s home state of Sinaloa, Mexico, uses a family recipe in which the whole chicken is marinated, split down the middle and slow-grilled until the skin is crispy, then cut into pieces. It’s sold as two-, three-, or four-piece combo meals with side choices of rice, beans or salad.
Sinaloa chicken was a big seller in Ruiz’s two West Valley restaurants.
“In the Hispanic community, the chicken I’m doing is very popular because they know about it,” he said. “But here in the Ogden Valley, most locals aren’t too familiar with it.”
To help get the word out, Ruiz is grilling the marinated chicken outdoors in front of the restaurant. When customers drive up, they are greeted with the sizzling, smoky aroma of chicken cooking over charcoal.
“Once they see how it’s prepared, they want to try it,” Ruiz said.
Molcajete (mol-ca-hay-tay) is the second specialty dish that Ruiz hopes will catch on with diners.
A molcajete is a very heavy, mortar-and-pestle-type bowl made of lava rock. Ruiz heats the molcajete over a flame until it’s super hot. He arranges chicken, shrimp and skirt steak around the edges of the bowl and fills the middle with rich chile verde sauce and sautéed peppers, onions, mushrooms and asparagus. Accompanied by tortillas, rice and refried beans, it becomes a feast that easily feeds two or three people.
“I’m not the first one to do Molcajete, but I’m the best,” said Ruiz, who likes to tweak recipes. “There’s no limit when it comes to cooking. If you teach me one way, I will try to change it.”
Another specialty dish, Parrillada, involves a small tableside grill to cook skirt steak, shrimp and chicken, bell peppers, onion, asparagus and mushrooms. It’s accompanied by rice, beans and corn tortillas to serve four people for $45.99.
Customers have discovered other favorites on the menu, including Mexican pizza, a thin crust spread with refried beans, topped with jalapeños and the Sinaloa grilled chicken. Also, rolled taquitos filled with grilled chicken, and fajitas, with a choice of grilled chicken, steak, shrimp or a vegetarian version with portobello mushrooms, asparagus, peppers and onion.
Ruiz is originally from Michoacan, Mexico, and moved to Utah in September 1994. “And I’ve been cooking ever since. I discovered that cooking is my passion. I really believe that anything you do, if you do it with love, you will find success.”
As with most Mexican restaurants, you’re greeted with complimentary chips and house-made salsa. The salsa is made fresh every day, Ruiz said. It’s full-flavored, with a tongue-tingling kick but not a lot of burning heat.
“We do everything pretty mild, but we have a lot of options to add more heat,” Ruiz said. “A lot of restaurants cook for the whole week, but I cook everything fresh every day. We make the food when the customer orders it, so it may take 15 minutes. But nothing is coming from a can.”
If you need one more reason to drive to Eden to check things out, there’s live music on Thursdays from 4-7 p.m. and Sundays from 6-9 p.m. The restaurant has outside patio seating and take-out but currently doesn’t have a liquor license to serve alcohol.
Beginning in June, Ruiz and Miller plan to serve breakfast. The menu will include south-of-the-border dishes like huevos rancheros and chilaquiles, as well as typical breakfast items like pancakes and eggs.