The fact that El Pollo Regio is a fast-food restaurant -- a fast-food chain, at that -- is enough to cause a certain amount of skepticism. But don't discount it because it has a drive-through window, or else you'll miss out on some very good food.
El Pollo Regio began in Austin in the mid-'90s, when founder Juan Basualda served his family recipe's grilled and marinated chicken out of a trailer on Riverside Drive. In hindsight, he not only preceded Austin's current trailer-food craze, but also the trailer-to-storefront movement recently embodied by Austin hot spots Torchy's Tacos and Franklin Barbecue, both of which started out on wheels.
Now franchised, the chain has been such a sensation, the number of El Pollo Regio restaurants numbers almost 30, with more than half of those in North Texas. Last year, one opened in Plano; a location in Sherman opened this month. El Pollo's ongoing expansion spurred us to visit the original Fort Worth location, opened six years ago a few miles northeast of downtown, in a former fast-food restaurant.
Little is offered in the way of decor or atmosphere. It's tiny, with five scruffy tables and four booths. A large patio offers more legroom, and it may be cooler out there, anyway. On recent visits, the A/C was on the fritz. Walls are decorated with murals of Mexico, and a TV was tuned to a hip-hop video station.
What El Pollo Regio lacks in design, it more than compensates for with flavorful, quickly prepared dishes. Charcoal-grilled chicken is the star attraction: You can get it in tacos, burritos, quesadillas or whole or half chickens. You order by dish number at a counter, and food is delivered to your table within 10 minutes.
A whole chicken dinner ($12.99) featured a healthy-size chicken cut into eight pieces; a soft, grilled half onion; rice; charro beans; six white corn tortillas; lime slices; and salsa. It was plenty for two people.
Scarred with grill marks, the chicken was nicely cooked, not dry but not overly juicy, either. It had a strong, smoky flavor, tasting as if it had come off a backyard grill. The marinade is what made it so good; ingredients are kept secret, but you could taste traces of lime, garlic and black pepper. This was certainly not your typical fast-food chicken.
Accompanying rice was light on flavor, but the charro beans were terrific, with bits of ground beef, bacon, jalapeños and tomato chunks mixed in. The tortillas were store-bought but had a sturdy texture and pleasant flavor. The best of the three salsas was a wonderful, creamy jalapeño and avocado-based salsa that, despite its slight aftershock, was highly addictive.
Of the handful of meat selections, barbacoa tacos ($5.95) stood out. Served five per order, they came street taco-style, small, double-wrapped in corn tortillas, with cilantro, onions and lime slices on the side. Barbacoa tacos can sometimes be fatty or greasy, but the shredded meat was tender and flavorful -- and plentiful. Each taco was nearly impossible to eat by hand, they were piled so high with meat. A dark salsa, served on the side, was mouth-numbingly hot.
A hamburger plate ($6.77) sounded promising but was underwhelming. El Pollo Regio takes the "ham" part literally, placing a slice of ham atop the charbroiled beef patty. The burger also came with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and onions and was served in a flat, white grilled bun. But the beef was very overcooked, rendering it tasteless, and the avocado wasn't detectable. A side of fries was good, thick, golden and nicely seasoned with salt and pepper.
Desserts were cellophane-wrapped empanadas and flan. The real treat was the vast drink selection, including Mexican Coke and other Mexican soft drinks, as well as horchata and tamarindo -- something else you won't see at any other, quote, unquote, fast-food restaurant.