El Pollo Norteño: Chicken Politicians
This is how progress works in Orange County: find a strip mall that houses two legendary Mexican restaurants, places that have fed generations of eaters, that remain wildly popular—and unceremoniously boot them to the proverbial dustbins.
That's what happened late last month, when Santa Ana officials forced out Grande Bakery and El Pollo Norteño from their longtime homes on Grand Avenue in the name of modernity. Grande just happened to be the second-oldest remaining Mexican restaurant in OC, having fed the masses its pan dulces, tortillas and tamales since 1951 (only Sarinana's Tamale Factory, about 10 minutes away, is older). El Pollo Norteño is a bit younger—it opened in 1981—but is no less historic: for many gabachos, it was their first experience of pollo asado, the Sinaloan art of placing chicken over a mesquite-fueled open flame and eating the sumptuous results, a style since copied by the Juan Pollo and Char-o Chicken chains. But such heritage wasn't enough for SanTana officials, who decided the strip mall that housed the two stood in the way of a street-widening project and used eminent domain to push them out (why couldn't they have done that to The Orange County Register?).
The owners of Grande Bakery also owned the strip mall and are taking the city to court to get a higher payout than what SanTana officials offered. Councilman Vince Sarmiento has gone on the record as saying he wants Grande Bakery to reopen with the city's help, but that's probably not going to happen. At least El Pollo Norteño will remain: its success over the years allowed it to open three other branches, one in SanTana, one in Anaheim and the other in Garden Grove. There, you can still order epic meals of chicken, the skin turned into golden shards, the meat as bouncy as a marshmallow, the two soaked in lime juice and chile powder that embeds itself down into the bone. Sí, they sell burritos and tacos and even other meats, but one always goes with your choice of chicken size (quarter, half or full), sides of pinto beans and rice, and corn tortillas that should be better but you always forgive because everything else is so delicious.
Those other Pollo Norteño outposts will last decades, thank God. But the closing of the pioneer location is a reminder to us all: Restaurants that we take for granted can quickly disappear due to the whims of pendejo bureaucrats. Eat while you can.
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