From Mexico to SoCo: How did fast-food chain El Pollo Loco fare on the long journey?

Sep 2, 2009 at 4:00 am

Fast food isn't typical territory for this column, but El Pollo Loco isn't the typical fast-food chain. Though now based in Costa Mesa, California, it wasn't founded there. In fact, it wasn't founded in the United States, period. It's a rare specimen in the nation that has made the Golden Arches a symbol as universal as a cartoon heart: the fast-food import.

The original El Pollo Loco opened in 1975 as a roadside stand in Guasave, Mexico. Guasave is a small city located in the state of Sinaloa on the Pacific coast, about 200 miles north of Mazatlán. (Just how small is Guasave? Well, take the source for what it's worth, but according to its Wikipedia entry, its "main [tourist] attraction is the now famous traffic lights right in the middle of the highway.") More locations soon opened throughout Mexico, and in 1980 the chain established its first American outpost in Los Angeles. Today El Pollo Loco comprises nearly 400 restaurants spread across fourteen U.S. states.

The first St. Louis location opened in May where Lemay Ferry Road intersects South Lindbergh Boulevard. South county might seem like an unlikely spot for a chain whose birthplace is in Mexico, but it's a sign — the first of many, really — of how Americanized El Pollo Loco has become. Remove the specific logos and dish names, and this could be any fast-food joint: drive-thru, soda fountain, condiment bar, picture menu of numbered combo meals.

El Pollo Loco translates as "the crazy chicken," and chicken is pretty much the only show in town, served as individual pieces or chopped up for burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas and salads. The restaurant refers to its chicken as "flame-grilled," which is one of those ridiculous phrases fast-food chains devise to convince you that their food is, you know, real. But El Pollo Loco does have a grill, located behind the cash registers, where cooks tend to the chicken, and every now and then the tip of an actual flame will flicker above the grate.

The chicken is marinated in a concoction of citrus juice, garlic, herbs and spices that — according to El Pollo Loco's official history, at least — has passed unchanged from the restaurant's founding family to the chain's American owners. (The current owner is a New York-based asset-management firm; previous American owners included the same company that owns Denny's.) On my first visit, I opted to try the chicken in its purest form, ordering the two-piece meal with a leg and a thigh. Those who prefer white meat can order a breast and a wing and pay a little more.

The chicken arrived fresh from the grill, its skin a lovely copper color. The skin held much of the flavor: the natural savor of browned meat with a hint of garlic and the sweetness (though not the tartness) of citrus. The marinade hadn't permeated into the meat, which was tender but needed a sprinkle of salt.

The chicken is served with two tortillas (corn or flour) and your choice of two sides. I, being something of a Neanderthal, ate the chicken with my hands, reserving my flour tortillas for — well, I wasn't really sure what to do with them. I decided to use them as a vehicle for sampling the four different salsas available at the condiment bar. The house salsa is chunky with tomato and relatively tame; the pico de gallo is straightforward. Hottest was the dark salsa de árbol, made from the eponymous chile, while the most intriguing was the "avocado salsa," a thin, bright green sauce that didn't taste much like avocados but possessed some peppery bite.

The sides are uninspiring, more in line with American tastes than Mexican palates: fries, salad, cole slaw, mashed potatoes with gravy (!), mac & cheese. Pinto beans are served in a lightly sweet barbecue sauce, and to my dismay, if not surprise, a corn cobette came not with the traditional Mexican street-food accompaniments (lime, cayenne powder, sometimes sour cream), but plain ol' butter. An order of tortilla soup brought a decent broth thick with shredded chicken (naturally) and vegetables but no visible tortillas.

Curious to see how the chicken worked in one of the other dishes, I returned to El Pollo Loco and ordered the "Ultimate Grilled Burrito," one of four burritos available. This is a monster dish: chicken with rice, pinto beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and cheese. The burrito is lightly browned on both of its broad sides, resulting in a crisper texture than the usual burrito has, but the interior was surprisingly bland, much less than the sum of its parts. The chicken was especially obscured here, its subtle seasonings utterly lost among its "ultimate" accompaniments.

I can't imagine the founders of El Pollo Loco would be happy to see their chicken described as utterly lost. Then again, I doubt the "Ultimate Grilled Burrito" was on the original menu. Stick with the original chicken. South county's El Pollo Loco might be a far cry from Guasave, circa 1975, but some of the flavor remains.