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RESTAURANT REVIEW EL POLLO NORTENO : Chicken Delight : The fast-food chain is hard to beat for price and convenience. It's finger-lickin' good too.

June 20, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It had been so long since I had shopped for food, the kitchen echoed when I walked through it in the morning. I vowed I would get to the store, but instead I frantically chased deadlines all day and was an hour late picking up the kids. Then they had to wait in the car while I went to the post office, the photo-copy shop, the bank and the drugstore. I was starting to dread another dinner of takeout french fries, guilt-ridden hamburgers and chemical milkshakes.

Then I thought of El Pollo Norteno and suggested it to the back-seat moaners. The hoots and hollers of pleasure were music to a mother's ears.

Twelve years ago, El Pollo Norteno came up with recipes for fast Mexican meals that are simple, extremely satisfying and healthy as well. The simplicity of their menu, which consists of marinated chicken or tri-tip barbecued on a huge mesquite grill, allows them to turn out meals quickly. To the meat they add beans, warm tortillas and plenty of chunky salsa. And you can order rice, potato salad, onions or jalapenos on the side.

Several El Pollo Norteno franchises now spice up the coast from Oxnard to Santa Maria. Like the one on North Oxnard Boulevard, they have a utilitarian, clean and bright decor. The mesquite exudes a pleasant, homey aroma--like a cozy Colorado mountain cabin.

While all the El Pollo Nortenos have tables, most people seem to come for takeout. It's easy to imagine that someday these franchises will spread across the country. And the funky, original El Pollo Norteno on South Oxnard Boulevard, with its worn linoleum, Spanish jukebox and hand-painted lettering on the windows will become a shrine to fast-food success.

This is the place where our son learned to eat his chicken right down to the bone, instead of his usual one bite per piece. The marinade (a secret recipe, I was told) gives the crisp chicken skin an appetizing, rich orange color, like tandoori chicken from an Indian restaurant. The hot grill seals in the juices, and the wings here are among the best I have had. A quarter chicken with beans and tortillas is $2.65, while a whole chicken is a reasonable $9.10.

Slices of tender tri-tip beef ($3.25 a quarter pound) are thoroughly imbued with the pungent, delicate flavor of marinade over mesquite.

The red beans are plain but honest, and you can get an extra side order for 38 cents. Forget the potato salad, but order the tasty onions, marinated to a pickle in lemony vinegar. The salsa here resembles well-seasoned stewed tomatoes, and you will be tempted to eat it like a vegetable side dish--except at the original location, where it's about a million times hotter than at any of the others.

The restaurants have a wide selection of beer, a minute selection of wine, and orange or pina colada thirst quenchers for kiddie taste buds.

I appreciate a place where the hardest part about getting dinner on the table is standing in line for a few minutes. Efficiency, price and taste are certainly a winning combination. As one of my son's friends whooped when I handed him his plate, "Yummy, in my tummy!"

* WHERE AND WHEN

El Pollo Norteno, 715 S. Oxnard Blvd., 487-4571; and 2077 N. Oxnard Blvd., 988-9790. Open for lunch and dinner every day, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wine and beer, parking lot, no credit cards. Lunch or dinner for one, food only, $2.65 to $5.

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