I'd never stepped foot in El Pollo Loco until I ventured in for lunch to try one of the new summer tacos. I liked the look of all those chickens (with all their parts) sizzling on the massive grill and the fact that they have an actual salsa bar as opposed to handing out tiny packets of hot sauce.
As I strolled over to have a look, a worker was refilling the stainless steel containers from pitchers labeled by date (a good sign). She poured out a soft green sauce and a clear red sauce with hot pepper flakes that actually packed some heat. Then she added a standard pico de gallo, fresh cilantro leaves, and chopped onion.
The order board resembles that of every other fast-food chain trying to keep up in a competitive market. The word "new!" is plastered everywhere -- new summer soft tacos, new summer burritos, new Mexican chicken Cobb salad, chicken fajito-stuffed quesadilla .... And of the bunch, I abandoned the taco idea and went for the (new) avocado bacon tostada salad.
When it arrived, it was much bigger and more generous than it looked in the promotional photo. A deep dish tostada, if you will, with the sides turned up to form a bowl. Made from a real flour tortilla, it's deep-fried and then filled with layers of tomato-tinged Mexican rice, fat brown pinto beans, shredded Romaine lettuce (lots of it), pico de gallo, sliced avocado, bits of crispy thick-cut bacon—and that fire-grilled chicken cut into chunks.
You choose the dressing, either standard ranch or creamy cilantro, which is a pretty pale green and tastes like ranch dosed with extra garlic and flecked with cilantro.
The salad has the heft of real food, substantial enough that you don't need the combo plate to fill you up. The chicken isn't dried out (a plus), and the grilling gives it a slight smoky edge. The avocado could have been riper and the creamy cilantro dressing became cloying after a few bites. Never mind, that can be solved by doctoring the salad with any and all from the salsa bar.
And when you get to the bottom of the bowl, you can break up the tostada shell and use it as chips for some of the salsa.
Halfway through, a personable El Pollo Loco employee came around with a tray, asking if we needed anything on it — sugar, toothpicks, ketchup, hand wipes.
This tostada salad is not going to rock your world, but with a little doctoring, it will do for $5.79. Calories: 900. Just go easy on that dressing.
Would I rather eat a taco off a truck? Yes, definitely. This is bland, middle-of-the-road Mexican, but in a pinch, it could do — no sugar added, or sweet sauces. The flavors are plain and unadorned. And that chicken really is grilled, on the premises. I saw it with my own eyes.
The downside is I had to go home and brush my teeth to get the garlic taste out of my mouth.