Los Petates is so confident about its roasted chicken that the owners have painted "The Best Chicken in Town" on its exterior. The boast caught my eye one day as I was driving up and down Foothill Boulevard looking for new taco trucks (some people hike -- I scout out carnitas). When I spotted more chicken being grilled four blocks away, I took the sighting as a challenge. Not to me, but to El Pollo Loco, the Mexican chicken chain that has opened franchises in every Latino neighborhood in the Western states. Could any of Fruitvale's homegrown chicken roasters best the giant?
Eight breasts, six drumsticks, and a whole mess of wings later, my answer is ... yes and no.
Perhaps the only Mexican fast-food chain to make it big in the United States, El Pollo Loco has more than three hundred restaurants on both sides of the border, a half-dozen of them in the greater Bay Area -- including one at International Boulevard and 25th Avenue in the heart of Oakland's Mexican-American community.
According to the chain's Web site, Francisco "Pancho" Ochoa started El Pollo Loco in Northern Mexico in 1975, roasting citrus-marinated chicken according to his family's recipe. Within five years, Ochoa owned 85 stores in Mexico and had opened his first American store in Los Angeles. Soon Denny's bought the chain, then someone bought Denny's, and now a company with the vaguely universal name of "American Securities Capital Partners" owns El Pollo Loco. New stores continue to spread north and east, trailing Mexican-American immigrants, many of whom already know the chain from their home country.
El Pollo Loco's chicken, butterflied and cooked on gas-fired grills just across the counter from you, is good. The secret-recipe marinade sinks far into the meat, and turns the skin ochre-hued and salty. Thighs, drumsticks, and wings all come out juicy and easy to pull apart. At the heart of each breast is a snowy-white tender that's either moist and flavorless or dry and flavorless, depending on how long before it came off the grill -- but you have to dig deep to get to it. Just pick up a tub of the pricklishly tart avocado-tomatillo salsa at the salsa bar for dunking the blandest white meat into.
Set aside the chicken and the Mexican flava, though, and El Pollo Loco looks like any other fast-food chain. As at KFC, you get a couple of sides, which range from fries and mac 'n' cheese to pintos and rice. All were airplane quality, and I mean coach. As for the tacos, tamales, and yanqui-friendly items such as "chicken bowl" and "twice-grilled burritos"? Anyone with some sense drives a couple of blocks down International to find a taco truck.
Despite its claims, Los Petates' chicken doesn't match up to that of its bigger competitor. It's not the fault of the marinade, ruddy with achiote and speckled with dried herbs. You can taste its effects deep into the flesh of the grilled chicken. It's the fault of the cooks, who on two separate visits grossly overcooked my chickens. My first, in fact, had probably been overcooked and then reheated to order, since large patches of skin had blackened and shriveled. At lunchtime a couple days later, only the white meat of my once-cooked chicken suffered a similar fate. The leg meat, rich and tender, gave me some idea of what the chicken could have been.
On most other counts, Los Petates offers a more enjoyable dining experience than a fast-food restaurant designed by a Jack in the Box wannabe. The eight-year-old restaurant feels lived in -- but not dingy -- with salmon and gold walls, windows draped with rainbow-colored Mexican curtains, and drum-shaped tables with bases of woven bamboo. You can see yourself spending a few hours there, sipping Coronas and watching Mexican soap operas.
Los Petates' menu spans breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a half-dozen pages. Though a distinct Jalisco cast was apparent, I wasn't thrilled with my thin, underseasoned birria, a spicy Jalisqueño goat stew. Both the birria and the chicken came with phenomenal Mexican rice, orange-hued from the tomatoes they were cooked with, and creamy, loosely pureed refried beans that benefited from a solid dose of lard.
I followed the smoke signals to one of the most charmless stretches of Foothill, not far from the Hells Angels headquarters. Tatty little Taqueria Durango would be easy to pass up if it weren't for the smoke. It pours from two long steel-drum barbecues in front of the restaurant and hangs over the block. The inside isn't much to look at, either. Big maroon leatherette booths ring the dim room, decorated in Raiders memorabilia and Mexican tchotchkes. Diners order at the counter, and receive their food at the back, picking up drinks from a wall-length refrigerator case at the back.
As I sat and ate one Saturday afternoon, the room never filled with people, but the takeout line never quite disappeared, either. All were waiting for takeout chickens and standard taqueria fare such as tacos, burritos, and tortas. Appealing to the intersection of black and Latino communities in East Oakland, Taqueria Durango sells slabs of beef ribs as well as grilled chicken, and gives diners a choice of cactus salad or potato salad with their meats.
After a short wait, the waitress brought me a half-chicken, obviously just pulled off the grill. The skin, flecked with blackened herbs, had pulled taut, and its fat had melted away, leaving a papery, crisp shell. Underneath, the meat had taken on a pinkish-brown cast from the smoke. But from skin to bone, the meat was tough. And a faint whiff of charcoal starter caught in my nose.
Durango's roasted chicken platter turned out to be a jigsaw puzzle. Eaten separately, each of the items on the plate almost satisfied, but then didn't. The nopales salad, a tangle of sliced onions and cactus strips, was tender and free of that mucilaginous, okra-like mouthfeel. It was dressed with olive oil, fresh oregano, and a jolt of lime juice -- and way too much salt. The rice: Underreheated. The corn tortillas: Steamed so long that they fell apart as I picked them up. The beans? Okay, nothing wrong with the beans. Spectacularly meaty beans. Beans I could live on for months.
Disappointed in my failed chicken hunt, I began to combine everything on the plate. I tore off a little chicken and its skin and folded it into a tortilla with a dollop of beans, a few strips of nopales and onion, a tiny dab of the chile-bomb salsa, and even some rice for that starch-on-starch effect. Each ingredient cancelled out the faults of the others -- for example, the tortilla soaked up the excess salt from the nopales, which in turn moistened the chicken -- and the entire meal came together into a meaty, herbal, tangy, spicy, chewy, crunchy, creamy, homey whole.
Now that was a flavor you could never franchise.
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