El Pollo Norteño
715 S. Oxnard Blvd.
$3 -$8

During the holidays I’m often overwhelmed by the complexity of flavors and dishes served at dinner parties, holiday gatherings and special events. I often long for very simple, fresh and delicious uncomplicated food. When such a mood occurs, I immediately head for El Pollo Norteño in Oxnard.

This very basic Mexican eatery does not have a complex menu. It is not a place for vegetarians to frequent, nor does it try to be anything other than what it is: a very affordable, phenomenally tasty, quick food choice for those who like simple fresh Mexican-style preparation. Its closest similarity in the fast food world is El Pollo Loco, but for me the same fresh home-cooked flavor cannot be found in that fast food restaurant. However, every single bite at El Pollo Norteño is scrumptiously to be savored.

The most popular dinner is the quarter-chicken and quarter-tri-tip combo (served with beans, salsa and tortillas) for $7.18. The tri-tip is unlike any you might find elsewhere.  Four thin strips of lightly marinated meat (probably in a lemon juice, garlic and olive oil marinade), quickly sizzled over a mesquite grill arrives so tender and mouth wateringly delicious that you might at first wish you’d ordered more of the meat.

But then you taste the chicken. Oh my … this chicken has been marinated in a special secret marinade (which, if my palate serves me seems to be mostly lemon juice, orange juice, garlic and turmeric). It falls off the bone, it is so tender and juicy you think, “I could really do without red meat ….” And then you taste the tri-tip again, and the simple fresh flavors of both give you that warm feeling that good simple healthy comfort food is supposed to give you: someone has prepared this for you who really cares about what you are eating and how good it tastes. And the smell of the meat grilling over the mesquite immediately teases you with the taste sensations yet to come.

El Pollo Norteño has basically been serving this same exact menu since 1982. Founded by Salvador Corona and his wife to duplicate the fast simple food of their native Mexico, the enterprise was brought to Ventura County by Carlos Ruiz-Rufo, and he has expanded to another Oxnard location, one in Simi Valley and another in Bakersfield. The original Oxnard restaurant is now managed by Ruiz-Rufo’s son-in law Cesar Villaseñor, and one always feels the family atmosphere, with the Mexican juke box music and lots of families sharing meals together.  

Much of their business is take-out, and El Pollo Norteño is a great quick stop for lunch.  Besides the full plates, there are burritos with either the tri-tip or the chicken, and if vegetarians happen to come along, they will not be at all disappointed with the beans and rice burrito (at $3.64, a true bargain). For side orders, don’t forget the beans: delicious pintos that are just simply perfectly cooked beans. Also try the pickled onions: red onions that have been pickled in lemon juice. This is a unique refreshing taste, and is very good paired with the salsa, which is nothing more than tomatoes and jalapeño chiles blended together. It is spicy and different … and then you just can’t stop eating it.

It is that good.

Dessert is, of course, a homemade flan or cheesecake; but my guess, is you’ll probably sneak another small order of tri-tip, “just to nibble on a little bit later”; and you’ll be lucky if you even get it to the car. As I said earlier, El Pollo Norteño is not fancy, is not complicated, and even the tables and linoleum floor make you think you are in someone’s kitchen. And when you eat the delicious food, you know why this simple, fresh, and natural food choice is exactly what you wanted to eat. And just as I do, you’ll probably keep coming back again and again.