Fans of the TV cooking competition series “Top Chef” might be surprised to see season 18 “cheftestant” Byron Gomez working a stall at Avanti Boulder. But the 34-year-old Costa Rica native considers running his food hall concept, Pollo Tico, to be one of his favorite roles to date. After working at Aspen’s 7908 restaurant for three-and-a-half years, Gomez was looking for a change. When the owners of Avanti came calling, he was ready to start firing the gallo pinto, arroz con pollo and patacones he grew up eating.
We caught up with Gomez to talk about the underrepresented cuisine, his mom’s recipes and how those Quickfire challenges compare to a busy day in the kitchen.
Is this the first time you’ve cooked Costa Rican food for an American audience?
Yes, for sure. There are four or five Mexican restaurants within three blocks from where I’m located, and that’s all people know of Latin American cuisine. Don’t get me wrong, Mexican cuisine is amazing, but with me being a Costa Rican chef from Costa Rica, it’s something I want to introduce to Boulder.
What are some big dishes in Costa Rican cooking?
One is my mother’s arroz con pollo. The chicken is marinated in Lizano sauce, which is this bottled sauce that every Costa Rican knows. What Heinz is to America, Lizano is to Costa Rica. We put it on everything. Then there’s street-style Costa Rican chicken with sides like gallo pinto, which is rice and beans cooked in pork lard. Gallo pinto is a staple in Costa Rica; we eat it three times a day. And maduros—sweet fried plantains.
What do you recommend for Costa Rican fare first-timers?
I tell people if you really want to get the whole experience of what we’re about, order the half chicken. You get half a bird, a side and two of our five different salsas. A little tasting of the menu. My favorite salsa is the habanero chicha de piña. We take pineapple, ferment it and then mix it with a blend of habanero and lime juice. It’s such a beautiful sauce, so much complexity. Sweet, not overpowering, fruity and fresh.
You were on “Top Chef.” How does the pressure of cooking on the TV show compare to a busy day at the restaurant?
It’s different because you’re cooking many dishes in the middle of the rush, but these are dishes that are repetitive. We know the recipes, we prepare them every day. On “Top Chef,” the wrenches they throw at you, you think, ‘This is impossible,’ but you still get it done. Here it’s also competitive; you’re putting out your best food and staying competitive with other stalls. But it’s more rewarding because you’re feeding actual people, not just judges. The food is for everyone.
How did you end up in Boulder?
I was seeking new opportunities, and I know the Front Range has those opportunities. Denver has a lot of exposure right now, but Boulder has so much potential. Why not try to be the big fish in the small pond?
How’s the response been to Pollo Tico so far? I’m sure many of these dishes are new to people.
There’s an educational part of introducing this food. We have dishes on display now so people can see them visually. The colors—bright yellows, pickled red onions, nice greens. Everyone who tries it loves it.
What’s been most popular?
The chicken patacon. Typically in Costa Rica, patacon is smashed plantain chips, served with sauce on the side. I took the plantain idea, but instead of chips, I take a whole plantain and smash it, almost like an open-faced sandwich. Then I add pulled chicken marinated in a house-made sofrito sauce, red slaw with red cabbage and carrots that we dress in a tamarind vinaigrette, house-made pickles, cheese and yellow pepper ginger sauce on top. It’s such a beautiful dish, and people love it. They purchase it more than the rice bowl, which is surprising.
You’ve done a lot of cool things—helming fancy restaurants, going on “Top Chef.” Is Pollo Tico the most fun?
It’s different. Fast casual is definitely a new concept that I’m trying out. What I’m about now is educating the guests, exposing my culture, my upbringing, my roots. Pollo Tico is based on the food memories I have of my mom’s cooking and our family gatherings. I think that’s what people want to connect with these days, the stories. It has been a blast.