There are certain words that tend to be thrown around loosely and iconic can definitely fit into that category. That said, in the restaurant world, if you are still around and thriving after 30 years with folks lining up for your food, I will gladly attach that label.
First off a brief history and backstory on Pollos Maria, which, for those of you not up on your basic Spanish, translates into Chicken Maria. And yes, that’s what you need to order, though the rest of their menu is solid as well. More on that in a bit.
The concept was created by owners Marie Davies and Carmen Gastelum when they launched the Mexican restaurant in 1985 after Marie read a news article predicting grilled chicken would gain popularity as healthy restaurant fare. Prior to that Marie owned a successful dry cleaners in Oceanside, but felt the need to do something that would bring people more pleasure. Not that freshly pressed shirts don’t bring a certain kind of pleasure, but not quite the same thing as the smiles produced after a satisfying meal. The combination of their easy to identify logo designed by Mary Hickethier, their memorable name and their amazing fire grilled chicken led to a loyal following from the start.
They started in Carmen’s kitchen out of her house in Carlsbad on Harding Street that was converted to a restaurant. The living room was transformed into the indoor dining area and later a patio was added so customers could enjoy their pollos year round in the fabulous Carlsbad weather. They eventually added fire pits that are a very nice touch on those “brisk” Carlsbad evenings. Brisk is all relative but regardless, it’s a super cool place to hang out where the ambiance equals the food, which makes for a memorable dining experience.
The business has since expanded with a catering service and in 2005 they opened their second location in Oceanside. It’s located in a shopping center off Old Grove Road and features colorful murals of the Mexican countryside, all painted by Marie’s relative, artist Sean Dominguez. My office is in Oceanside so that location is convenient for lunch but I will admit I prefer the ambiance of the old-school converted house in Carlsbad.
OK, so a bit of background on the main attraction here, the moist and flavorful chicken that is what this restaurant is known for. They are still prepared today as they were in the beginning in a citrus-based marinade, then flattened so they cook evenly and quickly over the grill. The result is tender, juicy and flavorful. My go-to is the half chicken meal with pinto beans, rice and flour tortillas. I create my own chicken soft taco with the white meat but prefer to eat the dark meat off the bone. The salsa that comes with the chips is a nice topping and they have hot sauce with levels of heat appropriate for any taste. It’s a really satisfying, flavorful meal so when it’s chicken night out for the family, skip the chains on occasion and give Pollos Maria a try.
That said, it’s a full menu and I was quite happy with the chicken soup, the crunchy mahi-mahi tacos and the Enchiladas Maria that I’ve tried on recent visits. I heard from some locals that were at the table next to us that the carne asada, menudo, tortas and tamales are all solid. One note the tamales are not always available so call ahead to check on that. There are also salad and bowl options if you happen to be dining with someone who really can’t take a break and indulge a bit. And really, the preparation of their chicken is quite healthy so please encourage them to ease up and give it a try.
We tried the house-made flan for dessert and they offer churros, Jell-O and cheesecake. Beer and wine is available and there is a full breakfast menu. If you are lucky, you will find Maria out front, telling stories and chatting up customers, still doing what she loves after 30 years at it.
Find Pollos Maria at 3055 Harding Street, Carlsbad, (760) 729-4858 and 125 Old Grove Road, #8 (between Ralph’s and Lowes) (760) 435-9071 or www.pollosmaria.com.