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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Roast Chicken Finds New Identity in a 'Wrap'

May 16, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A decade ago, there was just about no place in this town to get a nice piece of roast chicken. Today, restaurants specializing in roast chicken are as commonplace as personal trainers with their own Web pages.

Koo Koo Roo, the wildly popular Zankou Chicken and national chains such as Boston Market and Kenny Rogers Roasters have brought us from a roast chicken-less abyss to a golden shore of cluck.

Now here comes California Chicken Cafe, with a recently opened Encino location joining three on the Westside, to challenge the other roast bird chains. CCC doesn't exactly represent a new wrinkle in the chicken market. But the concept of making "wraps" (huge cylindrical sandwiches) and intelligent side dishes available, as well as freshly cooked rotisserie chicken, appears to resonate here on Ventura Boulevard.

Almost any evening, people line up to order these twirling birds, which are sold quartered, halved or whole.

Think of California Chicken Cafe as a cafeteria for the '90s--without liver and onions, fancy gelatin desserts or sheet cakes. As at a cafeteria, people from all walks of life come here. They sit at glossy ersatz wood-grained tables under a ceiling of exposed beams and ducts and they dine, as casually as they would in their own living rooms, on enormous portions at a relatively low cost.

*

California Chicken Cafe is partially self-service. You place your order standing in a cafeteria line and get your own drinks, sauces and condiments from a side station. You'll pick a table and get a numbered piece of plastic to display on it. In about five minutes, no matter how busy the restaurant is, the food arrives.

A guest of mine liked what he saw, but complained about having to order from a steam table because it reminded him of a school cafeteria. How long, he wanted to know, had the food been sitting there?

Not to worry. A dozen employees scurry constantly around the steam table and salad display replenishing the shiny metal trays of butternut squash, roasted potatoes and pasta salads. Anyway, my friend's eyes lit up when he caught sight of two dozen chickens revolving in bronzed glory on the restaurant's giant rotisserie.

I ordered myself a combo "wrap" and was surprised when it came to the table. It was a cylinder the size of a large submarine sandwich but at least twice as heavy, filled with chicken, avocado and Jack cheese, with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, Italian dressing and mayonnaise. The pita bread wrapper was double thick, rolled up like a flour tortilla at a good burrito stand.

There had to be half a pound of chicken in it, and the filling tasted familiar. Essentially, it was a Cobb salad without the bacon.

My friend was having a go at his chicken, which he had ordered with two scoops of smooth, buttery butternut squash puree and a pile of roasted potatoes. Good potatoes; there were bits of delicious roasted onion stuck to the surface of each wedge.

We agreed that the chicken acquitted itself well too. California Chicken's model is Zankou's without the garlic sauce, a slightly fatty bird with lots of crunchy skin and juicy meat, great for stuffing into the pita bread that comes with every order.

At the side station, you can pick up some of the mild, chunky-style house salsa or a bottle of jalapeno hot sauce. I do wish they had a garlic sauce, though.

As compensation, the restaurant offers a few good salads, notably a Chinese chicken salad made with cubed white meat, snappy greens, fried noodle crisps, a judicious amount of sesame oil and (annoyingly cold) bits of mandarin orange. The Caesar is pretty classical: romaine with fresh croutons, Parmesan cheese and garlicky dressing.

There are a number of pasta salads--spinach and feta cheese pasta salad, chicken pasta salad (featuring mostaccioli, chicken and green onions mixed with a cloying Russian dressing)--but I'd pass on them. Heck, you can get that stuff in a cafeteria.

DETAILS

* WHAT: California Chicken Cafe.

* WHERE: 15601 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

* WHEN: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday noon-10 p.m.; closed Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $12-$22.

* SUGGESTED DISHES: Whole chicken, $7; half chicken with two sides, $6.25; combo wrap, $6.25; Caesar salad, $4.50.

* FYI: No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

* CALL: (818) 789-8056.

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