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.

Harry’s Pig Shop (CLOSED) and The Taco Stand, Athens GA

Well, it took me a little while to get over to Harry’s Pig Shop. I had been wanting to visit for quite a while now, but I don’t just go to Athens every day, and when I do, I’d like to occasionally try something other than barbecue. There are quite a few good restaurants around that town, you know. Nevertheless, I moved it up my to-do list a couple of months ago after I read the good writeup at Buster’s BBQ Blog. Continue reading “Harry’s Pig Shop (CLOSED) and The Taco Stand, Athens GA”

The Varsity, Kennesaw GA

Over the last eight chapters in the blog, I have written about the four-day trip that we took to visit Marie’s brother and sister in Mississippi. These were posted here slightly out of sequence, as I was anxious to share some stories about places outside our regular stomping grounds around Atlanta. Not that anybody other than me is keeping track of these, but the next four entries (plus the next Honeymoon Flashback, later this week) are about some places that we visited before this road trip.

First up is a place that we visit with something approaching frequency, the Kennesaw location of The Varsity. I’m sure this is not a place that needs much introduction. It is as iconic as American restaurants get, and the downtown location, which I’m sure I’ll revisit and write about one day, is a major tourist attraction for the city.

The Varsity has done more things right than wrong over the years – moving their beloved Varsity Jr. location from Cheshire Bridge out to Dawsonville, because serving a long-established neighborhood is not as profitable as snagging outlet mall shoppers, must surely count as a “wrong” – and one of their neater ideas has been building satellite locations along each of the northern arteries that feed into the city. Whether you’ve followed the sprawl into the suburbs up Interstate 75 or 85 or GA-400, there’s a Varsity for you, and each of these stores do a darn good job capturing the feel of the original.

Usually, if we are in the mood for a burger, and don’t feel like making a production or a caravan or a road trip out of it, we just hop over to Cheeseburger Bobby’s, which makes one of the best burgers in Cobb County. The Varsity, let’s be fair and honest, is a fairly weak competitor in those stakes, but their fries are better than Bobby’s, and so are their onion rings, and so is their chocolate milk – you just won’t believe how well chocolate milk over ice goes with a burger until you try it – and they also add one thing that I sure do wish that Cheeseburger Bobby’s would consider for their own patties: pimento cheese.

I mentioned a few chapters back that I greatly admire the writing of John T. Edge. About a week before our trip, I read his delightful Hamburgers and Fries, one of a short series of books, very Calvin Trillin in feel and flavor, in which Edge flies around the country trying regional takes on the most classically American of foods. He has slug burgers in Mississippi and steamed burgers in Connecticut and, most drool-worthy of them all, pimento cheeseburgers in South Carolina.

I know virtually nothing about South Carolina. It’s always been a state that I have driven through; I have never stayed overnight in the state. I recognize this as a deficiency that needs correcting, and longer visits and more detailed investigations of South Carolina are on the long-term agenda. From what I understand, though – and, admittedly, a good chunk of what I understand is what I have read in Edge’s books – many of the older hamburger joints throughout the Palmetto State have long offered pimento cheeseburgers. It is apparently one of that region’s specialties.

I’m reminded of the similarity between the Varsity’s hot dogs and chili and the ones that you can get at Macon’s Nu-Way. When the Varsity’s founder, Frank Gordy, was first driving around the south nailing down ideas for what he wanted his restaurant, then called The Yellow Jacket, to serve, it’s suggested that he decided to replicate the Nu-Way experience. That was somewhat lost when the Varsity expanded and grew to its current enormous size, but you can still absolutely see Nu-Way’s influence. I wonder whether in 1928, pimento cheeseburgers were common in Atlanta, or did Gordy find a place or two in South Carolina that inspired him to do them here?

Every so often, I find myself craving pimento cheese on a burger, served all hot, gooey and greasy. Marie doesn’t often remind me that she’s a damn Yankee, but when she quickly corrects my order of pimento cheeseburgers and asks for her own with a slice of cheddar, I remember all right. Ah, but it’s those differences that keep us interesting, right?

Jack’s, Tallapoosa GA

I’m not going to name any names, but when I made an announcement – someplace that I won’t identify – that I finally went back to a Jack’s, a guy who runs a blog that I enjoy reading very much just turned up his nose quite publicly at the notion. Never mind all the good and interesting restaurants that we enjoyed on our trip through Alabama and Mississippi that I described, the only thing worth a reply, and a nose-upturned one at that, was my visit to a Jack’s.

That’s okay. This is not very good food. It would appear that, after fifty years in business, Jack’s has quite successfully managed to make a perfect clone of Burger King, and nobody calls that good. But it’s very interesting food, to me. Jack’s is wrapped around my childhood in a way that I will never extricate. I find this chain absolutely enthralling, even though they have not done very much to earn it.

When you are a child, you have a very different perspective on space than as an adult. Throughout the 1970s, my parents would routinely take me to visit family in Fort Payne, Alabama. We’d go out there once every four or five weeks. The path would almost always wind through Cartersville, Rome and Coosa, but then often take one of several different directions, depending on whether Dad wanted to get there in a hurry, or if nostalgia for his own misspent youth would send us to Fort Payne via Boaz or some other small community. I swear one was called “Blood Bucket,” but I can’t find any evidence of it anymore.

Once we were in Fort Payne, we might use my Pappy’s house as a staging point for trips to visit any number of places in northeast Alabama. None of the towns that I see looking over Google Maps seem familiar, but we would often drive to old businesses and speak to old acquaintances. There was a Jack’s in every town. I’d know that red circle logo anywhere.

When you’re a child, of course, you can’t really work out that “this is a chain almost totally exclusive to north Alabama.” You just figure that there are Jack’s everywhere, and when you are at home, Mom and Dad just don’t drive down any roads that have them. I don’t even know how often we actually stopped to eat at one. Probably not often, as I had an Aunt Rosie who wouldn’t dream of allowing anybody to eat a fast food hamburger when she had forty pounds of fried chicken, turnip greens and potato salad to feed all of us. I just know that Jack’s is part of my seventies restaurant memory the same way that the Krystal Kritters and the initial use of that creepy Burger King and his R2D2-knockoff French fry robot are.

About a month before that last bolt clicked into place and we started up this blog to document our travels and the fun we have eating, I took a drive out to Carrollton after a short day at work to try a Jack’s for the first time in a really, really long time. The restaurant had come up in conversation a few days previously when I was visiting Dad and some other friend of his had stopped by. This friend had heard, erroneously, it turns out, that a Jack’s was coming up in Douglasville or someplace nearby. That got me curious, so I drove out there, and had a… decentish meal. I imagine that it’s probably about the same caliber as the better-known (and confusingly similarly-named) Jack in the Box or Whataburger, each of which I have damned with faint praise in this blog’s pages before.

On our way back from Mississippi, I made sure that we stopped again. Marie and I had noticed this location about a month previously, when we visited Tallapoosa to try the excellent barbecue and stew at The Turn Around. It is apparently one of only three Jack’s in Georgia. There is one in Corinth, MS and sixty-some odd in northern Alabama. Around Birmingham, there are some very neat interstate exits where the local chains Jack’s and Milo’s duel it out alongside their better-known national rivals like Burger King and Wendy’s.

Jack’s isn’t essential eating, of course, but it’s always interesting to me to visit a restaurant like this that I can’t get at home. Driving I-20 through Alabama takes you past about a dozen or more exits where travelers can sample one. I think it’s worth a visit once in a while.

Dreamland BBQ and Taco Casa, Tuscaloosa AL

My dad never went to Tuscaloosa. I always thought that was weird.

When he was younger, he saw his beloved Crimson Tide play many times at Legion Field in Birmingham, and, once he and my mom moved to Atlanta, back when Georgia Tech was in the sort of proto-SEC, he’d see the Tide play in Atlanta at Grant Field. Yet he never saw the Tide at what is today Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is briefly visible, towering over the trees, as you make your way down Tuscaloosa’s main commercial strip, McFarland Boulevard. At least, I think that was the stadium. I’ll feel a bit silly if it wasn’t. Continue reading “Dreamland BBQ and Taco Casa, Tuscaloosa AL”

Red Burrito, Woodstock GA

About a week and a half ago, I got so aggravated with this girl that I used to date that I have to tell you about it. Now, you might think that “girls that Grant used to date” would not necessarily be on top of the list of people whom I would want to stop and visit with my newborn baby on the way home from the hospital, and normally, you would be right. However, I’ve stayed friendly with Jennifer for years, even if we are not as close as we once were, and she’s known Marie since before Marie and I began dating. Jennifer manages a comic book store in Woodstock, which is not at all bad as far as Diamond catalog stores go. It is downright terrific for anybody interested in buying modern comic books and superhero tchotchkes, although sadly lacking in boxes full of embarrassing dot matrix Star Trek fanzines, untranslated Brazilian James Bond comics, indefineable weird Japanese things and stacks of 1960s British newspaper comics, and there’s not a single 1970s National Lampoon with since-unreprinted Gahan Wilson pages in the joint. That’s why I never visit. Screw Iron Man, I’m into the good stuff.

Well, since I wanted to show off the baby, and since Jennifer’s store was on the way home, and since Jennifer’s more than midway through her own pregnancy, I suggested to Marie that we swing by and see whether she was in. Marie, sleepy but still glowing, agreed that we should, and so we stopped by for a few minutes to say hello and brag about our youngun. Jennifer invited us to come by the next day for Free Comic Book Day, we waved goodbye, pulled back out onto Towne Lake Parkway, and I did a complete double-take because I thought I saw something quite unexpected. After we got the baby back home and settled, I went online and confirmed it. Yes, the Hardee’s people have opened a Red Burrito in Woodstock.

Red Burrito is the fast-food Mexican chain run by CKE, which is the parent corporation of Carl’s Jr. They bought Hardee’s in 1997 and seemed to shut down about a third of them, which was just about the closest thing to a mercy killing I’ve ever seen in the restaurant business. This is actually a point I’ve been meaning to come back to for ages; remind me to tell you about Chicken Express one day. Anyway, noticing the success of their rival Yum! Brands and their dual-branded Taco Bell / KFC / Long John Silver / A&W stores, CKE decided to make similar restaurants with double menus. On the far side of the Rockies, there are Carl’s Jr. stores dual-branded with Green Burrito, and on this side, there are Hardee’s dual-branded with Red Burrito. These have steadfastedly avoided the Atlanta area until about a month ago. The first two Red Burritos have finally opened in Lithia Springs and in Woodstock. There’s another one up the road outside of Rome.

So the next evening, the older children and I went back to the comic store for my son to get a free Sonic the Hedgehog book, and for me to express my aggravation. I could not believe that, knowing how I feel about small-market regional fast food, she would work one parking lot’s distance from this place and not tell me that it had opened. Jennifer, kindly, explained that she remembered well how I feel about regional, small market sodas, but had no idea that I cared about regional fast food chains. I suspect that she was drawing a polite veil of no-longer-caring-in-the-slightest about how, for years, I have gone on about White Castle and Whataburger and Jack in the Box.

Oh, all right, so I wasn’t really aggravated, but I get so few opportunities to aggravate other people by showing up at their place of business and yammering on about fast food chains when they’re exhausted and tired of working a big promotional day with hundreds of extra visitors these days. How could I resist?

So, aggravation duly caused, the children and I went up to finally try a Red Burrito. I first heard of them ages ago when, curious about some point or other, I looked up Hardee’s on Wikipedia and saw the reference. I’ve since seen a billboard for one on I-95 in northern Florida, and we drove past one in Asheville when we were last there, but my curiosity over a fast food taco wasn’t enough to pull me from our schedule in one of America’s best food cities.

And the result was, well, about what you’d expect. The burrito itself – I ordered chicken – was not bad, although the thin, light green sauce that the poor kids behind the counter claimed was guacamole was pretty laughable. The chips, rice and beans were salty and perfectly acceptable for this sort of food. It’s better than Taco Bell, whatever that’s worth. It’s multiple orders of magnitude better than that godawful Taco Bell in Canton.

However, these tacos here are just absolutely pathetic. I’ve never seen something so sad. They just drizzled a few crumbs of ground beef into the bottom of a shell, added six or seven shreds of lettuce and a baby’s handful of cheese and served it up with, literally, two fingers’ width of space remaining between the cheese and the top of the shell. I ordered two tacos and I very much doubt that I got as much filling as I would have in just one from Taco Bell. Now, whomever is in charge of quality control here needs to step in and do something about this. They hired a simply terrific high schooler to take our order, but whomever is in the back actually making the food needs to go build ships in bottles if he’s that obsessed with very small things.

My curiosity has been sated. The food here is pretty good. “Better than Taco Bell” isn’t much of a recommendation, especially when it’s still not even close to being on par with Del Taco. Still, it’s nice to enjoy something new, isn’t it?

Del Taco, Spartanburg SC (CLOSED)

Del Taco left the Atlanta market eight years ago and – no kidding – I have been missing it ever since. I have explained that I allow myself one locally-available fast food weakness, Krystal. If Del Taco were to move back into Atlanta, I’d enjoy one last styrofoam container of chili cheese fries eaten with a red plastic fork and sadly wave goodbye to Krystal, because I love Del Taco and that would be that. So when I learned that there was one in Spartanburg, my carefully-crafted seven-meal trip swelled to eight. There was just no way I was going to drive past a Del Taco without stopping. Man, was it ever good. Often times, almost all the time, the memory cheats on you, but Del Taco is, somehow, as good as I remember it. Continue reading “Del Taco, Spartanburg SC (CLOSED)”