Pollo Abuelitas: Gourmet station new Latin mecca

When you've walked on fire– 15 feet over 2000-degree coals– nothing seems impossible. That's why chef James Lewis, a past participant in one of inspirational speaker Anthony Robbins's "Firewalks," isn't flinching at the prospect of opening 4,000 restaurants in the next few years. If he can pull that off, he'd trump Boston Market's 630 locations but fall short of KFC's 11,000.

Inspired by Lewis's Central American travels, Pollo Abuelitas (translation: Grandma's Chicken) is a unique franchise concept because it caters to Latin Americans and lovers of Latin American cuisine.

As Lewis already owns the Vintage Market– a gourmet gas station five miles south of town on Route 20– he'll launch the first Pollo Abuelitas in the U.S. right here in Albemarle.

On Saturday, March 19, Lewis welcomed the first customers to his freshly renovated store– with colorful tile walls, a new pastry and Greenberry's coffee station, and a vibrant menu board. Later this year, he plans to open dozens more restaurants in his target markets: Arizona, Texas, and southern California.

"I don't know the word 'retirement,'" says the 63-year-old Lewis, who was once a scuba instructor in CancĂșn.

He is so committed to healthy living that his shop offers health supplements made by Olympian Labs as well as free on-line health evaluations.

Beverage choices include freshly made fruit and vegetable juices– plus a special super-sweet Coca-Cola that Lewis imports from El-Salvador.

On the pastry case, samples of crunchy Odwalla Bars vie with house-made confections like Argentine pastry-chef Armando Pettinaroli's powdery-sweet dulce de leche cake.

As its name suggests, the restaurant specializes in fried chicken served with a variety of side dishes– including an amazing roasted cactus salad (no needles!), a variety of bean dishes, rice, tortillas, and soups.

Lewis gets his 100 percent natural, free-range chicken from a farm in Arizona. After coating it with his blend of spices, he fries it lightly in trans-fat-free "smart oil." Lewis, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, also roasts half and whole chickens in garlic and rosemary in his new super-automatic Henny Penny oven.

Since Lewis was a pioneer in the now-booming local wine industry (he used to own the Totier Creek Winery, now First Colony), we can expect a significant wine selection to appear in the next few months. Lewis says he will eventually offer gourmet take-out dinners-for-two, perfect for a picnic at nearby Walnut Creek Park or one of the area wineries.

Seating is available in the shop, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.



 As Dish celebrated the first day of spring with an picnic at Afton Vineyards, there was a buzz swirling around the tasting room. The King Family Vineyards, together with their winemaker Michael Shaps, plan to open a new wine bar on the Downtown Mall this summer.

According to vineyard owner Ellen King, a lease has been signed and demolition will begin on April 1 in the space soon to be vacated by rug purveyor-on-the-go Sun Bow Trading (which is moving to South Street).

Aptly named VAvino, this all-purpose wine bar at 401 E. Main will include tasting room, wine shop, and educational center– all focusing on Virginia wines, yet another sign that local vintners have succeeded in transforming this region into the Sonoma of the southeast.


In yet another sign of the star-potential of Virginia wines, Patricia Kluge of Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard has been invited to join 11 other women winemakers at a special Women in Wine event at the Borgata Casino Hotel in Atlantic City on April 9. Co-sponsored by Food and Wine magazine, this event recognizes Kluge as the lone non-California honoree. Other notables include Gina Gallo of Gallo of Sonoma, Melissa Stackhouse of La Crema, and Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven Cellars.

Firewalker James Lewis at Pollo Abuelitos