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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

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

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