It’s so easy to catch a fast food restaurant at the worst possible moment. The floor has a spill. Several of the tables are littered with trays and discarded food. The ice tea dispenser is empty. They run out of the item you order — after you pay the tab. They’re understaffed, but the folks behind the counter seem to be re-enacting “Night of the Living Dead.” A line is forming, no food comes up from the kitchen promptly and the manager, shirt partially untucked, is fiddling with the screen as if launching the last space shuttle.
Welcome to El Pollo Loco, a restaurant chain that is at least trying to make a difference when it comes to eating out healthy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the chicken that was crazy; this patron was as well.
The El Pollo bowl
Lunch at the restaurant seemed like a good idea, given that El Pollo Loco was among the 19 chains last week that agreed to participate in a new child nutritional program touted by the National Restaurant Association. Called “Kids Live Well,” it aims to brand restaurants and items with a “seal of approval” that hope to make it easier to chose healthy food.
The visit, unfortunately, demonstrated the biggest problem with the program thus far: The 19 chains have the program at 15,000 locations nationwide. The El Pollo Loco I chose on Buford Highway in Atlanta is not among the participating restaurants. So the program’s happy logo was nowhere to be found.
But El Pollo got the nod anyway. It was 2p.m., and I was crazy hungry. Plus, the chain also participates in other programs with Healthy Dining, the consulting company involved in the NRA initiative. The nutritional information posted just inside the door featured many items with Healthy Dining’s approval.
I decided to get the chicken tortilla soup, minus the tortilla strips, and the Original Pollo Bowl. The soup clocked in at 140 calories, 5 grams of fat and 840 mg of sodium. Because it never arrived, I saved those calories easily enough.
The Pollo Bowl was listed at 610 calories, 10 grams fat, and 1,750 mg of sodium (way too much), although I asked the kitchen to skip the cheese and rice in the bowl. That might have been a mistake because by the time I waited for my refund on the soup, the bowl was a lukewarm soupy mixture of beans, onions, pico de gallo and chicken chunks, garnished with chopped cilantro. Blah.
Barbecue black beans and steamed vegetables
Still feeling hungry, I went back for a side of fresh vegetables and the barbecue black beans. The former didn’t exactly have the texture of great veggies, just pulled from the steamer. But they did have some texture and, at a fast food restaurant, something of a miracle. It’s hard to knock them.
The black beans were 200 calories, 3 grams fat and 520 of sodium. The typically rich, earthly flavor of black beans was buried beneath a blanket of sickly sweet barbecue sauce. It seemed more like the kind of sugary baked beans one brings to the church picnic. No wonder. With 16 grams of sugar, that half-cup of black beans had more sugar than the 14 grams in an Oreo cookie.
It’s tempting to grade on good intentions — a fast food chain with steamed vegetables deserves some credit. But between the food, the experience and the sodium content, one can’t honestly declare this visit to El Pollo Loco a winner.