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The Chicken Here Drives ‘Em Crazy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“It’s the best there is,” says a guy carrying a plate of fiery red-orange chicken to his table. Looking around Dino’s Burgers, a corner stand on Pico Boulevard, all I see is this chicken. If it’s not on the tables, it’s being packed to go.

Whenever I return, it’s the same thing--chicken, chicken everywhere. A mother shares her order with two small children. Sixty boxes are carted out to a party downtown.

On the menu board, you can read about burgers and other sandwiches, Mexican food and drinks, but not chicken. (A lampshade obscures the chicken section.) It doesn’t matter, because no one looks at the menu anyway. Everyone knows what to order.

The bird that inspires this fanatical devotion is officially called El Pollo Maniaco (loosely translated as crazy chicken), but it is also known as the Big Red and Byzantine Red Pollo. The marinade is an old Greek recipe that owner Demetrios Pantazis has spiced up for this largely Latino neighborhood.

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The chicken is marinated and basted with secret seasonings--vinegar and garlic, obviously, and there must be oregano. Something else imparts the brilliant orange that makes it look almost like tandoori chicken. The half-bird portion comes with French fries, coleslaw and corn tortillas--hot peppers too, if you want them.

The meat is ravishingly good, and when the sauce seeps into the French fries, they become miraculous. Kids from a neighboring school stop by just to buy fries doused with this sauce.

The fries are made from scratch. Every week the kitchen peels, cuts and fries to order about 4,000 pounds of potatoes. And you get a lot--I took home three orders for four people, and we finished only a bit more than half. The coleslaw is made from scratch too, and has a subtle peppery aftertaste. But if you don’t like fries or slaw, you can substitute rice and beans or lettuce salad.

The stand could make a fortune serving chicken alone, even though the price is astonishingly low--$3.28 for the whole plate. It’s what 8 out of 10 customers order, and Pantazis estimates that he sells more than 3,500 plates a week. He even has a picture of a chicken on his business card. Nevertheless, the name of the stand is Dino’s Burgers, and so burgers are on hand too. They’re good enough, although no match for the chicken. Dino’s used to make the patties. Now they come from an outside supplier.

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Dino’s has been around for 30 years. Dino was Pantazis’ father, who arrived with his family from Greece in 1955. The chicken recipe originated with Pantazis’ great-grandfather in Patras. Of course, in Greece they never ate chicken with tortillas on the side, and probably not with sweet, creamy coleslaw either. Nor did they drink the Mexican beverages like horchata or tamarindo that Dino’s serves, along with the usual sodas.

The Mexican food at Dino’s is actually quite good, because, like the chicken, it’s all made from scratch. Pinto beans are simmered until rich and thick. Rice is sauteed with onions, then cooked in chicken broth.

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The guy who raved about the chicken also had nice words for a carne asada plate. And if I weren’t having the chicken, that is what I would order. At $5, it’s Dino’s priciest item, but still cheap because you get two nice rib eye steaks, again seasoned with Pantazis’ secret spices, along with rice, beans, tortillas, a salad and fresh jalapeno salsa.

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There is a taco asada, two soft corn tortillas heaped with thin-cut grilled meat, lettuce, cheese, onions and jalapeno salsa; a hefty bundle for $1.20. The same ingredients are packed into a flour tortilla along with beans for a combo burrito. The top burrito, though, is the all-meat grilled carne asada burrito. Ask for the onions to be grilled along with the meat. And for an extra 50 cents, your burrito will be spread with the thick chili mixture that is used for a chili size, and this will be topped with strips of orange cheese.

Dino’s is more than just a stand; there are 10 tables inside and two outside, with windows for placing orders in both places. And it keeps long hours. The stand opens at 6 a.m., serving egg dishes, pancakes . . . and chicken. And it closes only two days a year, Christmas and Thanksgiving. Pantazis keeps it open on New Year’s Day because, he says, that gives a good start to the year.

BE THERE

Dino’s Burgers, 2575 W. Pico Blvd. (corner of Berendo Street), Los Angeles. (213) 380-3554. Open Sunday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday to midnight. No alcohol. Cash only. Park in the lot behind the stand or on the street. Dinner for two, food only, $6 to $10.

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What to Get: El Pollo Maniaco, carne asada plate, carne asada burrito or taco, hamburgers.


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