If you were anywhere near the vicinity of the Wichita Riverfest this week, you probably caught a whiff of it.
Charcoal with a hint of mesquite. The aroma of meat juices dripping onto hot coals. A delicious cloud of smoke that demands to be followed.
It's the unmistakable sign that you're closing in on El Pollo Dorado al Carbon, an unlikely — and growing — local chicken empire that's been earning fans since it first opened in a little yellow truck on a street corner in north Wichita in 2012.
This week, the little venture by founder Adrian Hernandez and his business partner Manuel Osorio has been getting a big audience at the Wichita Riverfest's RedGuard stage food court, where it was invited to set up this year. Hungry festivalgoers have been lining up to watch the bright orange, spatchcock chickens sizzle on a custom-made charcoal grill and to find out whether their flavor is as wonderful as their aroma.
"The smoke really brings in the people," said Osorio, who estimates he sold 200 chickens during the festival's opening weekend alone. "They're curious, and as soon as the smell hits them, they know it's food."
Until recently, the only place to get El Pollo Dorado's famous chicken was at the corner of 21st and Wellington, several blocks east of Arkansas.
Drive past there any time and you'll see people lined up at the window of the yellow chicken truck, waiting to order and gazing hungrily at the smoking, massive charcoal grill set up nearby.
They're there for the chicken that's made with a secret marinade perfected over time by Hernandez and Osorio. The two will never share the recipe, but they will say the marinade includes wine and a seasoning known as achiote, which gives the chicken it's eye-catching orange hue.
The truck also sells ribs, chicken dinners featuring peppers and onions that have also been cooked on the charcoal grill, and inexpensive tacos. One of its best sellers is a family-sized dinner that costs $16 and includes a whole grilled chicken, corn tortillas, onions, jalapenos, and Mexican rice and beans.
At the Riverfest, the partners are trying out a few items they don't usually sell, including rib tacos, al pastor tacos, wrapped hotlinks and quesadillas. People have responded well, and they've also responded well to the giant mobile toppings bar that El Pollo Dorado has set up at the festival. Customers lift a cover to find tubs of fresh lime, sliced radishes, chopped cilantro, pico de gallo and salsas.
The truck was originally started at the corner of 29th and Broadway by Hernandez, who wanted to sell the kind of marinated, charcoal-grilled chicken common in his native Oaxaca, Mexico. The chicken is split open, marinated and grilled over mesquite charcoal.
Not long after he opened, Hernandez partnered with his accountant, Osorio, to expand the business.
They moved the truck to 21st Street, where it's now always parked (except this week, when a smaller truck is filling in while the big one works the Riverfest).
They also created custom grills using Hernandez’s welding skills. The big one, which is 12 by 8 feet, is always with the truck.
Last year, their growing popularity allowed them to expand and open a stationary restaurant at 2117 E. Central. It went well, Osorio said, but they have an opportunity to move it into Old Town and just closed it down in anticipation. Osorio promises to reveal the new location soon.
He and Hernandez also are expanding with at least two more trucks, which will be open by franchisee Jim Linder. One will be set up at the corner of 13th and Maize, he said, and the other will open in Kansas City. The west-side truck should be ready by late summer, Osorio said.
"We've put in a lot of hours and a lot of blood, sweat and tears into making this product," he said.
El Pollo Dorado al Carbon will be set up at the Wichita Riverfest from 5 to 10 p.m. today through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
You can also visit it at 21st and Wellington Place from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. It'll also be serving at the Wichita Taco Fest on June 23. And stay tuned for updates on the new restaurant and trucks.