The Shake Shack of Costa Rican chicken

Byron Gomez opens Pollo Tico in Avanti

Fried plantains are featured heavily on the menu at Pollo Tico. This banana cultivar gets twice fried for the chicken patacon, a type of open-faced sandwich.

Chef Byron Gomez has cooked alongside a lot of big deal chefs.

He cut his teeth in Daniel Boulud’s kitchens, a fine-dining empire which currently spans New York, Boston, Miami, London, Singapore and Dubai, to name a few. Though this was back when the French chef was mostly conquering the Big Apple, and Gomez was helping launch Cafe Boulud and heating up at DBGB Kitchen and Bar.

He also worked the line at Daniel Humm’s famed Eleven Madison Park in 2017, right as it was being recognized as The World’s Best Restaurant by The World’s 50 Best. Most recently Gomez ran the kitchen at 7908 in Aspen, where he served what was undoubtedly some of the most forward-thinking cuisine available at that altitude.

So it stands to reason that it’s kind of a big deal that the Top Chef season 18 alum decided to debut his first truly independent project, Pollo Tico, at Avanti Boulder.

“I never thought my first restaurant was going to be fast-casual, to be honest,” says Gomez. But at the end of October, the chef opened Pollo Tico in the stall that formerly housed Quiero Arepas in the popular Pearl Street food hall. “Pollo Tico, for me, is two things. The majority is as an educational establishment,” Gomez says. “The second is the chicken. Chicken is very friendly. Everyone knows chicken,” he smiles. Ostensibly a rotisserie chicken joint, Pollo Tico is a tribute to the dishes that shaped Gomez’s youth growing up in Costa Rica. “We’re serving things that people here might only know through a Mexican restaurant.”

It wasn’t until Gomez was given the platform provided by Top Chef that he decided to tell the world — and many of his previous employers — that he had risen the ranks from one of the King’s fry cooks all the way to the highest echelons of fine dining while undocumented. Initially furnishing fake papers, the chef was granted DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status in 2014. Along with the trouble of having to frequently renew his status, he still can’t leave the country.

Sauces at Pollo Tico.

It’s safe to say that the food at Pollo Tico is personal. The menu centers around half or quarter rotisserie chicken served with homemade sauces and sides. “We do have the Michelin-style standards in the kitchen,” says Gomez, noting that though the menu may appear simple, this is still the kind of cuisine befitting the celebrity chef’s pedigree. There’s the chicken patacon, which lays shredded chicken, sofrito, red cabbage, escabeche vegetables and salsa de chile amarillo atop twice-fried green plantains for a kind of open-faced sandwich. The house-made sauces are foundational and fundamental, with the creamy salsa verde, a tamarindo sauce, the sofrito de tomate, the habanero chicha de pina hot sauce and the chimichurri all being sold in bottles. These are the kind of sauces no home kitchen is complete without.

While Gomez designed much of the menu, the day-to-day operations are set to be left largely in the hands of executive chef Jorge Saldana. Saldana grew up in San Diego and moved to New York with the intent of working in some of the world’s great kitchens. He and Gomez met while they were on the line at DBGB in 2012, and their culinary journey continued to intersect in the following decade. While still in New York, Saldana bounced around Boulud’s restaurant group, developing his skills at Boulud Sous, Bar Boulud and Daniel. In 2016, he moved to Denver to join the line at Half Eaten Cookie Hospitality’s now-shuttered Acorn, before a stint at chef Jennifer Jaskinski’s fabulous Union Station Spanish tapas joint Ultreia. He returned to New York to work at the one Michelin-starred classic French eatery Le Coucou before returning to Colorado in May 2020. He’s since worked a variety of gigs with Gomez in Aspen and across the Front Range.

There’s a lot of talent between Gomez and Saldana. The duo also share more than a fair bit of kitchen chemistry, which is evident across the menu. “It was stuff Byron grew up eating, but we came together to make it happen,” says Saldana. While Pollo Tico is getting its sea legs, the two plan to introduce a ceviche program in December with weekly specials primarily handled by Saldana.

When Gomez presented Costa Rican dishes at this year’s opening luncheon for the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, proudly sporting an “I AM AN IMMIGRANT” shirt, he wasn’t sure where his culinary journey was going to take him next. He did know it was time for him to do his own thing. The chef now says this is just the beginning. 

“Why can’t we be the next Shake Shack for Costa Rican chicken?” he says with a grin.  

On the plate: Pollo Tico. Avanti F and B, 1401 Pearl St., Boulder,