Goodbye to El Pollo Loco

I will always associate El Pollo Loco with death.

That’s hardly fair, of course, but that’s how these things happen. One of my earliest memories is the death of an uncle named Ruford, who married my father’s oldest sister before Dad was born. This is, in part, why I am convinced that there must have been some old family contract that made it illegal for anybody to marry into my family unless they had a name as silly as any of ours. My grandfather had a sensible name like Joseph, gave all five of his kids oddball names, and the oldest of them married somebody with a name like Ruford.

Anyway, Ruford died when I was five or so, and somebody, probably his daughter, my cousin Sandie, told all of us small ones who were at the hospital that somebody had brought some Mississippi mud cake for us and it was back at the house. Ever since then, Mississippi mud cake has been off my menu. Seeing its name in print reminds me of the first time that I ever encountered death, and my kindergarten-aged self shudders inside.

I was really pleased to hear that El Pollo Loco was entering the Atlanta market in 2007, because, of course, I am interested in smaller chains. One of the first of what would be perhaps nine – down from a planned and announced fifty – opened on Holcomb Bridge Road in Roswell. I would drive right past it on my way home from work. Now, at that job, on the last business day of each month, everybody had to stay late until everybody else had finished and the books were balanced, possibly because my boss was Bill Lumbergh. So on the last business day of the month, my mother would pick up the children from school for me, since heaven knew when I would leave, and I would get supper somewhere in Roswell and enjoy a good book.

So, I settled on trying out the new El Pollo Loco that November, left sometime after the sun went down and somebody’s financing was finally approved and a contract written, got in the car and my phone rang. It was the children’s mother, calling to say that her mother was in the hospital. This was a Friday; I asked whether she wanted me to bring the children to Knoxville the next day to see her, and she said, firmly, not to, to give it a week. She then took a sharp turn for the worse and died on Wednesday morning.

Not that I had any kind of love left for anybody in that family, but, for my children, I should have told her that I was coming anyway, and just gone home and packed. Instead, I spent Friday night wowing the avocado sauce on El Pollo Loco’s salsa bar. I ate at three of the city’s El Pollo Loco locations quite a few times in 2008 and 2009, before I cut fast food from the diet, and always enjoyed the meals here. But with every one of them, I heard that voice in the back of my head saying “You should have taken your kids to see their grandmother one last time.”

Which is a pretty unfair thing to do to myself; hell, earlier in 2007, I deliberately curtailed a plan to drive straight from Toronto home to Atlanta in one go, just to give these rotten kids a few hours with her. You’d think that’d give me a little pass on the guilt, but guilt’s a stupid, senseless thing, and that’s why El Pollo Loco never meant “the crazy chicken” to me. It meant death.

Tomorrow’s News Today, a good site about Atlanta retail that locals should certainly be reading, wrapped up the restaurant’s four-and-a-half-year run in the region with an obituary and recap and noted that three of the nine stores indeed formally changed their name to The Crazy Chicken, an act which surely must have been borne of desperation.

While they were with us, though, El Pollo Loco served up some pretty good meals for what it was. I always thought of it as a cross between a Mrs. Winners and a Del Taco. Sure, you could find better if you wanted to pay a little more, but when it was convenient for us to stop by the Smyrna, Marietta or Roswell stores for a cheap, reliable meal and load up on chicken burritos and chips and salsa, this was a little better than the average.

I’d been telling myself for months to stop back by the Smyrna store, because the sluggish halt to the franchise group’s expansion plans sounded like it would make a good story. I put it off too long; even after the Marietta “Crazy Chicken” had shuttered and become an IHOP, I just kept saying that I’d get around to Smyrna eventually, and never did. We’ll just have to see them on the west coast, if we ever make it out that way.

In the meantime, I continue to wait impatiently for that long-promised Del Taco to finally open in Snellville. The obituary linked above suggests that this location might finally open in February 2012. I’m starting to get impatient.