This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Armenians are the masters of the rotisserie chicken; Midwesterners perfected broasted hens; Vietnamese practice the high art of chicken pho. Mexicans, meanwhile, content themselves with preparing the best charbroiled chicken in the world, and few in Orange County do it better than El Pollo de Oro.

It's one of the more popular restaurants on Santa Ana's Fourth Street, near the corner of Broadway and Fourth; the little storefront is crowded every afternoon with customers hoping for a quick bite before stepping outside to catch the bus that'll take them home. But even if the OCTA didn't keep a stop near El Pollo de Oro, the dive would still draw customers: its windows, devoid of posters or curtains, open onto the kitchen, where rows and rows of chickens lie splayed over a grill, flames licking heavenward. Cooks flip them over in a mad dance that once would've earned them a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show.

There's little in the way of preparation here, but that's El Pollo de Oro's charm: the hen is simply blackened until its skin is gnarled, but the flesh remains so plump and juicy you can flake it off with your pinkie. Whether you order a whole chicken, a half or a quarter, the sides remain the same—earthy pinto beans glistening with broth soaked up by properly fluffy pink rice. Horchata, tamarind and other tropical drinks percolate in containers, but every Mexican knows that you chase a charbroiled chicken with Orange Bang! or Jarritos.

The best thing to order at El Pollo de Oro is actually the chicken taco. Sure, you can make your own by shredding chicken with your gummy hands and dumping the bits onto a corn tortilla. Don't be estúpido—let the cooks do it for you. Allow them to charbroil the chicken, then chop it into large, juicy bits. See them stuff the pollo judiciously into a warm corn tortilla, decorated with nothing else. Drizzle some of their watery, spicy salsa on it, and enjoy.

This is public dining at its most public, those big front windows functioning like a plasma-screen TV that broadcasts nothing but the Charbroiled Chicken Channel. You will be one of the guests. So dress well, and mind your manners: the world is watching you savor tacos at their finest.

EL POLLO DE ORO, 101 W. FOURTH ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 973-1917.

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