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Cook's Country

Make Smoky, Zesty El Pollo Loco–Inspired Chicken Tonight

Bright, smoky, and spicy, this chicken is here to shake up grilling season.

Juan Francisco “Pancho” Ochoa’s life changed when he chose chicken over shoes. 

In 1975, he walked away from the shoe business and started selling grilled chicken, using his family’s recipe, out of what had been his shoe store in the city of Guasave on Mexico’s west coast. On his first day of business, Ochoa sold all 43 chickens he had grilled. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of something bigger: El Pollo Loco.

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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.

Over the past 47 years, the fast food chain has grown to 485 locations across Mexico and the United States; the landmark U.S. location is in Los Angeles. And it’s been a very eventful (nearly) half century. According to Guinness World Records, El Pollo Loco once held the world record for creating the largest burrito, which weighed more than 4,000 pounds. 

El Pollo Loco

Before he made it big in Hollywood, Brad Pitt donned a chicken suit as an El Pollo Loco mascot—talk about some good-looking chicken! And the company became known for its annual cooking competition for its grill masters (the term it uses for its cooks). While Ochoa no longer owns the bulk of the franchise, his family’s beloved chicken recipe remains the bedrock of the chain’s continuing success.

The basics of the recipe are to marinate half chickens in fruit juice, garlic, and spices before slowly grilling them to tender, smoky perfection. Inspired by this, I set out to make moist, nicely charred grilled chicken infused with the flavors of lemon, orange, and spice. I wasn’t trying to duplicate El Pollo Loco’s version but rather use its collection of flavors as the basis for my own unique spin.

For this version, start with chicken pieces instead of halves; the pieces cook more evenly than halves and are easier to move around the grill. To create a pathway for the marinade to penetrate and more surface area for it to cling to, cut slits in the chicken pieces before marinating.

Instead of citrus juice (it is believed that El Pollo Loco also includes pineapple juice), grate some fragrant, concentrated zest from an orange and a lemon and mix that with olive oil, minced garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, and salt and pepper. Marinate the chicken pieces in this mixture for at least an hour or up to a day. Then you’re ready to grill.

To create smoke flavor, wrap wood chips in a foil packet and cut two vents in the foil; the packet will go on the fire and infuse the chicken with smokiness as it cooks. The key to juicy grilled chicken parts is not to rush things. Set up your grill with hotter and cooler zones, and cook the chicken on the cooler side until it’s cooked through, which takes a little less than 30 minutes. Then transfer it to the hotter side for a few minutes to give it some color and char—and deeper flavor.

We like to think that Mr. Ochoa would appreciate this lightly smoked, deeply seasoned chicken. Maybe it will become your family’s special recipe.