I spent the Saturdays of my youth cramped with the family inside a battered 1986 Ranger as it swerved toward Tijuana in search of affordable anything. The drive down was arduous, the line coming back to San Ysidro tortuously long, and the San Clemente INS checkpoint humiliating, but these voyages up and down then-green Interstate 5 were worth it. Greeting us upon entering Orange County was the Surfin' Chicken in San Clemente.
My father always pulled over at Surfin' Chicken—and not just because we were hungry or needed to relieve our bursting bladders. Surfin' Chicken's owner is José Martínez, the brother of my sister's godfather. He's from El Durazno, a rancho close to my father's in the city of Jerez, Zacatecas, and El Cuatro ("The Four," as Martínez is affectionately known for reasons even he doesn't understand) would greet us weary travelers with a somewhat-biblical hospitality. Over horchata and chicken, Martínez and my father spent hours discussing the things men talk about when they're hard-working immigrants nostalgic for the patria: work; news from Mexico; and the latest batch of marriages, quinceañeras and deaths.
The trips to Surfin' Chicken became infrequent as my parents sweated their way from poverty to lower middle class, and Tijuana was no longer an economic essential. But I still carried the restaurant's redolence of chicken cooked on giant grills in some sensory brain center, and I ached for the infinite flavors of the very bubbly Mexican soda Jarritos, pined for the day I could visit its unpretentious digs again.
That day came recently, and I remembered anew why Surfin' Chicken never left my tongue's memory.
There are changes, but thank goodness they're aesthetic rather than culinary. The signed photos of NFL teams that once hung from the walls are now in storage, exiled after the Rams left for St. Louis. Surfing pictures still adorn the walls, though, men and wahines riding crystalline waves or posing with their boards.
Martínez, a burly man with a walrus mustache and hands the size of rakes, is still there. Near his cash register is a Mexican license plate emblazoned with "Jerez." And he still turns out the glorious charbroiled chickens that have kept Martínez in business for 17 years.
El Cuatro's method is as miraculous as Mass. He soaks his hens in lemon butter before slapping them onto the open-fire grill. He then shakes tremendous amounts of chile powder onto the meat and grills them until crisp, the lemon and powder fusing onto the chicken and seeping through the tender meat to the bone.
The result is mysterious, the skin a black coat of char but still succulent. It retains chile and lemon remnants and drips with juices that pool in the Styrofoam plate. The meat is soft, slightly smoky, and exudes a sour/spicy crackle that's nearly radioactive.
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Martínez similarly prepares all his dishes, treasures like spicy fish tacos, grilled salmon and a chewy shark fillet. The best bet: the carne asada platter.
Accompanying all meats is a not-too-fiery salsa that does not intrude on their glory. While the Mexican rice is too clumpy and pale, the beans are de la olla—from the pot, a Mexican expression that means the beans are prepared by washing them twice, letting them sit in water for an hour, washing them again, and then simmering them in a pot along with pungent portions of garlic and lard. ¡Son sabrosisimos!
Martínez didn't recognize me upon my return, but his eyes smiled when I told him who I was. He asked about my parents and shared a chicken and horchata with me. Life doesn't get any better than a platter of Surfin Chicken's pollo alongside tales of childhood shenanigans.
Surfin Chicken, located at 71 Via Pico Plaza, San Clemente, is open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (949) 498-6603. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $7-$21, excluding drinks. Cash only.