The Untold Truth Of El Pollo Loco

When it comes to the food scene in the United States, perhaps the most exciting region is the Southwest. Not only do you have Texas-style barbecue and amazing vegan options in California, but there's also the heavy influence of Mexican cuisine. El Pollo Loco exists at the crossroads of these culinary cultures, and its food is reflective of that fact. The Southwestern chain is known for its Sinaloa-style marinated grilled chicken (Sinaloa is a Mexican state), which is so good that some have even speculated that it could become the next Chipotle. And it's more than just the chicken — the food has a reputation for being fresh and often veggie-forward, which makes it appealing to more than just your typical fast food audience.

Whether you have an El Pollo Loco in your area or not, there's one thing that's for sure: It's a restaurant you should be keeping your eye on. But to understand where it's headed, you have to know more about its past. That's exactly why you should learn more about the untold truth of El Pollo Loco.

El Pollo Loco is from Mexico, but its first U.S. location was in L.A.

Juan Francisco Ochoa started El Pollo Loco in 1975. While the first U.S. store was in Los Angeles, it really all began in Guasave, Sinaloa, Mexico. Ochoa had owned a shoe store in the past, but he had a dream... and a recipe that would help him realize it. So, he sold everything he had and turned his shoe store into a chicken restaurant. His family had been making chicken using the same recipe for generations. Ochoa knew how good it was, and he was convinced that he could sell it to the local community.

He was right. The citrus marinade on his chicken made his restaurant a local standout, and soon, customers would wait in line just to get a bite of the famous chicken. It wasn't until 1980, that El Pollo Loco landed on Alvarado Street in L.A. The authentic Mexican chicken became a huge hit, and just like in Mexico, word started to spread in California. By the 1980 census, California's population was already almost 20 percent of Hispanic origin, so it was a good spot to appeal to people who already had a familiarity with Mexican cuisine.

Brad Pitt worked at an El Pollo Loco

Unless you're from a family that's already rich and famous, everyone has to start at the bottom. For a lot of people, including celebrities, that means working in the fast-food industry. It might surprise you that one very famous star worked at an El Pollo Loco before making his big break in Hollywood. Brad Pitt didn't just work behind the counter, though. He was actually a mascot for the company, which means he got to dress in a yellow feather chicken suit and encourage customers to come in and try the chicken during the grand opening. Though he claims he doesn't remember how much he got paid, he said that he does remember people making rude hand gestures at him frequently.

Pitt doesn't seem to have any shame about his former gig, though. The actor talked about his experience as an El Pollo Loco employee with Ellen DeGeneres on her show in 2019. He told DeGeneres that he had "no shame" about his former employment and added, "man's gotta eat." Hopefully, they let him take some chicken home at the end of his shift.

El Pollo Loco had some internal legal issues

Despite being a smaller company, El Pollo Loco has had its fair share of legal troubles. Perhaps most notable was an internal issue in 2004, when the Mexican branch of the company attempted to sue the American branch. The Mexican branch claimed that the company had not kept up its end of the bargain in an joint expansion agreement the two parties had made years earlier. The Mexican branch won the dispute and received the massive sum of $22 million from the American branch. In addition, it managed to obtain the ownership of the Mexico branch's intellectual property and the El Pollo Loco trademark. Steve Carley, president and CEO of El Pollo Loco at the time, did not support the decision. As reported by QSR Magazine, he said, "We disagree with the jury's decision and believe that it is not supported by the facts in this case as a matter of law."

El Pollo Loco held a record for the world's longest burrito

When you think about what you want to be remembered for after you die, what comes to mind? Maybe you want to be remembered as a good spouse and parent, or as the best in your field, or as a kind person who made other people smile. But if you were El Pollo Loco in 1995, you'd want to be remembered for making the world's longest burrito. That's just what the chain did when it co-organized an effort to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. The stunt was part of a charity event held at the Honda Center (formerly known as the Arrowhead Pond) in Anaheim, California.

Volunteers were responsible for the construction of the massive burrito, which came out to be 3,112.99 feet long and 250 pounds heavier than anticipated. While it was impossible to weigh a burrito of this size, it was estimated at a whopping 4,217 pounds. Interestingly enough, it was only three inches wide, which doesn't seem unreasonable to actually bite into, especially considering its other dimensions. Not only was this a fascinating practice in making a burrito, but it also helped raise $10,000 for an organization called Olive Crest, which serves abused and neglected children.

The restaurant was owned by the same parent company as Denny's

Do you remember going to Denny's as a kid? It had fluffy pancakes, value meal specials, and a slew of breakfast options 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week. It may seem like a far cry from the kind of food you'd find at El Pollo Loco, but these two restaurant chains were both owned by the same company at one point. That company was Advantica (though it was known as Denny's, Inc. at the time), and it purchased El Pollo Loco in 1983, just three years after it landed in the U.S. But then, the company decided to put El Pollo Loco up for sale in June of 1999. Since El Pollo Loco was so small at the time, it struggled to gain real growth when it was owned by Advantica. But the potential was there, and it didn't take long for American Securities Capital Partners to scoop it up and call the chain its own.

El Pollo Loco has a pretty appetizing secret menu

Lots of restaurant chains have secret menus and special items that you wouldn't know about unless you were a superfan, but El Pollo Loco's secret menu seriously outdoes itself. It mixes up some of your favorites and gives them a whole new flavor. One of the items that some might find surprising is the fish taco. Yes, El Pollo Loco is all about the chicken, but that doesn't mean it doesn't appreciate a good fish taco just as much as the next person. For a long time, these things were hidden under wraps, and they became a bit of a myth. But now, they've been rolled out at all El Pollo Loco locations.

Another favorite is the Smoky Mountain Black Bean Burrito. Look familiar? If you're a long-time El Pollo Loco fan, it might. It was once on the normal menu but not anymore. However, if you remember how good this thing was, you may want to take the leap and order it again. A slightly less popular secret menu item is the skinless chicken. It may not be everyone's favorite, but if you're looking to cut down on fat and calories but still want that amazing El Pollo Loco taste, it's a solid option.

El Pollo Loco offers dishes under 500 calories

When you eat a fast food restaurant, the last thing you expect is to find something healthy on the menu. And while there has been a shift toward healthier options at fast food joints, especially for kids, there is still more work to be done. That's why it's such a treat when you find a fast food place that offers healthier meal options that you can grab and go without feeling bad about ordering. Some restaurants, like El Pollo Loco, are now offering meal options that are under 500 calories. It's not just "diet food," either. It's high-quality veggies and protein that come together to create a truly healthy meal (not just one that's low in calories but also nutrients).

Don't worry — the healthy food here isn't the stuff of sad salad nightmares. In fact, these options don't even feel like diet food. The chicken black bean bowl, for example, is super similar to something you'd find at a larger chain like Chipotle or Moe's Southwest Grill. Another thing to love about the low-calorie options here? Half of the menu items even include avocado, so you don't have to skip the good stuff just because you're concerned about too many calories.

Stores offer "chickenless pollo" for vegetarians

A few years ago, the meat-free food scene was completely different than it is today. It was nearly impossible to find veggie options — save tasteless side salads and fries — at most fast food restaurants. That left vegetarians and especially vegans with a dearth of food options when they wanted something easy and convenient. But in the past few years, more and more fast food chains have added meatless items to their menus. Even Burger King and White Castle have meatless burger options now.

El Pollo Loco is no different, but the company probably didn't want to diverge from its main attraction too much by offering something like the Impossible burger. Instead, the chain focuses on "chickenless pollo." The fake meat is surprisingly good, and it can be found in several different menu options. El Pollo Loco takes things even further than most restaurant chains, though, and actually advertises at least two of its products as vegan. They're not just for veggie-eaters only, either: They taste surprisingly good, and the texture of the "meat" is actually pretty realistic.

Two franchisees filed a lawsuit against the company in 2016

Not all of El Pollo Loco's franchisees have always been happy with corporate. In fact, back in 2016, two franchisees, a husband and a wife, sued the company. Michael Bryman and Janice Bryman had owned the only El Pollo Loco in their town of Lancaster, California, since 1995. But then, the company opened another location just over two miles away in 2015. The couple claimed that they should have been given the rights to expand in their own city, considering there weren't any other franchisees nearby. This new location, they thought, would reduce their revenue and cap the success of the business they had worked so hard to build.

The lawsuit worked. El Pollo Loco was forced to pay out $8.8 million in damages to the couple, which was clearly a big win for its franchisees everywhere. Hopefully, the company learned to respect its franchisees and their businesses so nothing like this happens again.

El Pollo Loco ingredients are all fresh

At some fast food places, you can tell that just about all the food is packed with preservatives, and you know the meat was probably frozen at some point. That kind of food is becoming less appealing to many Americans as they put a greater emphasis on their health and other, healthier convenience foods become available. This is where El Pollo Loco is winning because the chain is focused on fresh ingredients. This wasn't part of a trend, either: El Pollo Loco was definitely ahead of the curve on this one and was one of the companies that was selling "healthy" food before it was as popular as it is now.

Most notably, the chicken here is never frozen since that can make a significant difference when it comes to flavor. But it's not just the meat. Consumers also enjoy fresh salsa that's actually made from scratch, just as it should be. You'll even get fresh-sliced avocados, not the green mush you'll find at most fast casual spots. These little details are what make El Pollo Loco one of the best in its class.

It's made a record number of deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic

It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been earth-shattering for many restaurants out there. Before the crisis, fast food spots were struggling, and many predicted a coming crisis for the industry. While many of the issues that have led to this crisis are still unresolved, fast food joints now have a marked advantage over other types of restaurants: They have drive-thru windows, which many companies are now deeming essential to the continuation of their businesses. For smaller local businesses, this often requires complete shake-ups in the organization of the restaurant as a whole. But not in the fast food realm.

Since fast food restaurants haven't had to make as many adjustments to keep functioning as other restaurants, many of them have fared relatively well during the pandemic thus far, and El Pollo Loco is no exception. Drive-thru orders now account for 70 percent of the chain's sales. Plus, since the restaurant has started offering free delivery, El Pollo Loco has also experienced record delivery sales. Combine this with the increase in interest in the loyalty program (which earns participants access to meal options otherwise unavailable), and El Pollo Loco seems to be weathering the storm relatively well for now.

El Pollo Loco holds an annual grill challenge for its employees

If you work at El Pollo Loco, there are some skills that you just have to learn. Cooking the chicken correctly is probably the most important. Of course, when a staff member joins the team, they have to learn the basics. But El Pollo Loco takes its grilling seriously, so it encourages staff members to really learn the intricacies of the grilling process. One event that helps the company do just this is the Annual Grill Master Challenge

This challenge is a celebration of the grilling skills that allowed El Pollo Loco to become what it is today. Many of the participants in the Grill Master Challenge have been at the company for years, so they have the expertise to create a fantastic product. During the event, several of the top grill masters at the chain get a chance to come together and go head-to-head in this grilling competition until the last one is standing. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the chain has held the competition for the past few years, but who knows? It might come back in the future.

You can try to make El Pollo Loco's chicken at home

Even though there are nearly 500 El Pollo Loco locations across the country, not everyone has one close to home. If you've already tried the chicken there, it can be difficult and depressing when you get back home to be relegated to other fast food chicken joints that just don't offer the same taste or texture as your beloved El Pollo Loco. And if you've never been to any of the locations, you're probably curious about what all the hype is about. Is it really that good? What are you missing out on?

Unless you can afford the time to drive across the country to get the chicken you're craving, your best bet is to make your own El Pollo Loco chicken at home. It could take a bit more time than other chicken recipes you may be used to, but it's completely worth it when you take that first bite and realize how flavorful it is. The secret is marinating the chicken in pineapple and citrus juice overnight so it soaks into the meat. Don't worry, it won't come out too sweet — just deliciously tender and reminiscent of your favorite El Pollo Loco meal.