Al Carbon: Char-grilled, authentic, uncomparable

Extraordinary cuisine in an unlikely place

Al Carbon
The first time I went to Al Carbon, I entirely consumed a plate meant for two — complete with two sets of silverware. Tucker Wilson | Cavalier Daily

Only rarely does someone eat something truly special. I love a good meal, but in the restaurant world, sometimes the presence of the good can mask the existence of the extraordinary. However, every once in a while, hidden in unlikely places, you come across something exceptional — a meal that sticks in your mind. Every so often you eat at a place that while you’re still at the table, you can’t wait for your next opportunity to do it all over again. A few days ago, I had that experience in an unassuming little chicken joint called Al Carbon. 

At a glance, Al Carbon seems like any other Mexican restaurant. Its exterior is plain against its strip mall setting, and inside, the decorations are simple. It features familiar, brightly colored walls in burnt orange and lime green, and instantly recognizable draped serape blankets and pictures of abuelas abound. The restaurant’s centerpiece is a life-sized metal statue of a sombrero-wearing, cartoonish man named “Pancho.” However, the traditional atmosphere conceals something amazing — the food.

When I first entered Al Carbon, I can remember thinking, “This is gonna be good.” From the moment the front doors open, you are hit with a wall of one of the most tantalizing aromas I’ve ever experienced. A blend of Latin spices, coal-roasted peppers, succulent roasting chickens — the smell alone is enough to warrant a revisit. Al Carbon’s over-the-counter style of taking orders reminds me of my favorite dive restaurants — a great system too because when the smell of chicken hits you, you’re going to need food as fast as you can get it.

Their menu is an impressive array of Mexican and Latin American offerings. Side dishes, salsas and appetizers spill over into multiple columns from the all-too-familiar red salsa and chips with guac to more exoctic offerings like sweet and smoky cactus topped with a spicy Mexican chorizo or crispy fried yucca, basically Latin American french fries on steroids. Traditional dishes like fried plantains come up against street food favorites, such as the esquites — roasted sweet corn topped with a cheesy, savory mix of sour cream and cotija cheese with hints of chile powder and lime — a personal favorite.

However, the pièce de résistance is the slow-cooked, rotisserie-style chicken. Each whole bird is massaged in a signature and secret blend of spices before being turned slowly over a smoldering bed of charcoal for 24 hours. Al Carbon imports its charcoal from Peru, guaranteeing an authentic taste of the signature South American dish. It’s honestly difficult to explain just how incredible this chicken is. The white meat is soft, juicy and never tough. The dark meat is salty and fatty without falling apart. The skin is perfectly crispy and bursting with flavor from all those spices being slow baked to perfection. Just writing about it, my mouth waters.

Al Carbon’s menu reflects the goals of its owners, Myriam and Claudio Hernandez. Both natives of Mexico, the couple showcases their heritage with constant homage to street food and home-cooked favorites. Their love for the rich culture of the Latin American region is obvious from the care and effort that goes into every plate of food. That’s really what makes Al Carbon special — the love in the food, as cheesy — pun intended — as it may sound.

The first time I went to Al Carbon, I entirely consumed a plate meant for two — complete with two sets of silverware. Next time, I may eat a whole chicken before I am totally satisfied. Either way, there’s no doubt in my mind I will be returning very soon. 

At Al Carbon, flavors are rich and complex, dishes are cooked to perfection and love is added into every dish that comes out of the kitchen. There’s something truly special happening in this tiny restaurant located off of Route 29, and I can’t wait to go back and experience that magic all over again. 

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