I've long had a soft spot for El Pollo Loco, and not just because it's one of the few Mexican-originated fast-food chains. My parents would take us there for as long as I remember, because their charbroiled chicken was buttery and smoky, their pinto beans weren't half-bad, and they had Orange Bang! on tap. But I stopped patronizing El Pollo Loco once they veered away from serving chicken, chicken tacos, or chicken burritos, and dived into the realm of beef, pork, and other non-poultry heresies.
Their sad decline continues with the introduction of what they call “puffy shell” tacos. The chain's chief marketing officer, Ed Valle, boasts in a press release about the pride they take in their “innovative take on traditional tacos, and have gone to crazy lengths to prepare our unique shell,” which is all bullshit. This is a blatant ripoff of the legendary puffy tacos of San Antonio, which have been around since at least the 1950s. And El Pollo Loco's shell is unique in the sense that it's absolutely disgusting.
El Pollo Loco gets it wrong from the beginning by using flour tortillas to, as they claim, “create a thin, super-crisp outer layer with a soft, airy center.” There's your first problem: puffy tacos aren't created with preformed tortillas but rather fresh masa that's thrown into the deep fryer so that air pockets form in the masa and stay there upon cooling–hence, the “puffy” nickname. El Pollo Loco's shell, on the other hand, tastes like pita bread with air in it, featuring a weak outer shell, a doughy center, and none of the greasy shards that make eating puffy tacos such a pleasure.
And then comes the worst part: the actual meat. The chorizo tasted like Taco Bell meat, while the chicken was dry and flavorless. Actual puffy tacos, on the other hand, traditionally come with ground beef (picadillo, not chorizo) or some type of guisado, either choice always juicy. The combination of crunch and juiciness–all while the shell maintains its structure, mind you–is what makes the puffy taco so delicious.
Here, here are some real puffy tacos, from the legendary Henry's Puffy Taco in San Antonio:
El Pollo Loco's terrible take on this meal follows in the trend of big chains appropriating regional Mexican specialties (Chipotle and the Mission burrito, hot dog chains and the Sonora dog, Rick Bayless and his entire career) and getting them completely wrong. But at least a Chipotle burrito and your average bacon-wrapped hot dog is edible; El Pollo Loco's “puffy shell” tacos will inspire no one to try and find the source, which just might be as welcome a development as the fact that this is a limited special. Please, please, PLEASE, El Pollo Loco: stick to what you know–you know, chicken.