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These people were pretty excited about the horchata, too.

Image: Alice Levitt

It was a small dream, eating at El Pollo Loco. But stuck for years in Vermont, it was one I held close. North of the border in Canada, near where I lived, rotisserie chicken places such as St-Hubert are a dime a dozen. But they didn't come with tortillas and salsa. They were "complemented" with weird barbecue gravy and gummy poutine.

Living out a fantasy is almost always disappointing. My first meal at El Pollo Loco was not.

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My $6.89 investment.

Image: Alice Levitt

Forget Chipotle and its delicious twist of E. coli; sustainability and ethics aren't the goal at El Pollo Loco. But I didn't worry about that when I bit into the supernaturally crisp grilled chicken with its silky, citrus-marinated interior. It was damn good poultry by any measure, but for fast food, it was almost too good to be true. I don't doubt that Jonathan Waxman, chicken roaster extraordinaire of New York's Barbuto, would appreciate it. Torn into dewy corn tortillas and dressed with spicy avocado sauce and a shower of cilantro, the chicken transformed into a taco that most Houston taquerias would envy.

The Loco side salad was no better or worse than what I would expect from a fast food joint, save its surprisingly compelling creamy cilantro dressing. But I kind of loved the slightly sweet, buttery kernels of al dente corn mixed with red peppers. The horchata I ordered wasn't bad either, with plenty of cinnamon and a body just thin enough to be refreshing.

And if I become the next Marilyn Hagerty for my honest evaluation of a chain that turns out to be far better than it needs to be, so be it. I'll smile with a spicy tingle of avocado salsa on my lips.

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