Choose the chicken
El Pollo Feliz
El Pollo Feliz4717 Whitney Ave.
For a restaurant dubbed “the happy chicken,” El Pollo Feliz sure smokes a lot of birds. These chickens get one heck of an afterlife: Their parts are rubbed with earthy Mexican spices and then slow-cooked in a smoker for hours. Their flesh becomes fall-off-the-bone soft and infused with an aromatic wood-chip flavor that stays in patrons’ hair and clothes until their next shower. Indeed, the restaurant—the closest eatery to this reviewer’s home in Carmichael—sometimes covers the entire neighborhood in its distinct smoky barbecue smell. Especially on weekends.
The restaurant’s signature dish is its barbecue chicken, and customers can purchase wings, breasts, drumsticks and thighs in a variety of amounts—from as few as two to 12 pieces. An eight-piece combo is basically an entire chicken. You can also order it covered in a chocolatey and peppery mole-poblano sauce; shredded and scattered atop a plate of nachos; on top of a salad; inside a torta-style sandwich; or stuffed into a burrito or quesadilla. It’s no less flavorful or juicy in any of these variations than straight off the bone.
There’s a friendly neighborhood vibe at El Pollo Feliz, which is located in a strip mall that also houses a dance studio and a martial-arts dojo for kids. The restaurant’s exterior signage is simple and unassuming. The interior—which is much nicer than the iron bars on the front windows suggest—features abstract art and modern, clean tables. Because only a few employees work here on any given day, and there are only five or six tables, the line to order and the kitchen can get pretty backed up. On two occasions, I witnessed good Samaritans clear off fellow diners’ tables and bus dirty dishes into the kitchen. Another time, the restaurant closed early because the kitchen ran out of food. On yet a different visit, the restaurant closed for an hour so that its staff could fulfill a catering order.
Much of the cooking happens in the parking lot directly in front of the mom-and-pop joint. There’s often a hefty smoker sitting there, loaded with chicken and a rack of beef back ribs. However, all three times that I attempt to order the ribs, they’re already sold-out. For the sake of journalistic completeness, I call again before attempting a fourth visit in quest of a coveted beef rib. But, alas, the restaurant is already sold-out again, and during the phone call, I hear a woman’s voice in the background saying, “Everyone wants to try the ribs.”
The friendly man who answered the phone is El Pollo Feliz’s chef, server and busboy (the other employees include a few smiling, similarly busy women). He informs me they only cook about one rack per day because the meat didn’t sell well in the past, and he used to be stuck with leftovers every night.
El Pollo Feliz also serves carnitas, carne asada and the occasional shrimp dish (in a salad or nachos). It also often runs out of carne asada and shrimp. After several unsuccessful attempts to order anything besides chicken, I settle on a carnitas burrito. It’s filled with copious meat, but the pork lacks the signature woody flavor and moistness of the chicken. I also try a salad and nachos, a nice change of pace from the heaviness of eating pure chicken, but neither is particularly inventive.
Family meals are a great value here. Ordering a few pieces of chicken with salsa, grilled jalapeños, tortillas and a couple sides costs only a few bucks. Choose from traditional Mexican sides such as rice and beans, or go with American barbecue side dishes such as potato or macaroni salad. Both pair well with the chicken.
Here’s the takeaway from nearly a dozen unpredictable visits: If you’re in the mood for chicken, you’ll certainly leave happy.