This 400-unit West Coast Mexican-style grilled chicken chain was built on a family’s secret recipe for chicken marinade containing fruit juices, herbs, and spices. At El Pollo Loco restaurant the chickens are butterflied, marinated, then slowly cooked until done over a low open flame. My first version of this recipe did not allow for enough marinating time, and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the chickens in the restaurant are marinated in a vacuum tumbler, which, because of the vacuum pressure and convection, will thoroughly marinate a whole chicken in about 25 minutes. These tumblers are pretty spiffy contraptions and can be purchased for home use, but they cost hundreds of dollars. I’m not buying one right now and I wouldn’t expect you to, so we must marinate the old-fashioned way . . . with patience.

I marinated several chickens at various lengths of time without using a tumbler and with different formulations of marinade. After a couple of weeks of testing, I discovered the perfect marinating time with this improved formula to be 48 hours—so plan your meal accordingly. The chicken takes around 2 hours to slow-grill, so if you like to eat dinner at six p.m., start marinating the chicken two days before at four p.m. It’s important to grill the chicken over a medium/low flame so that the skin does not burn. Since all grills are different, this may take some experimenting to get just the right temperature setting for your grill. Ideally you want the chicken to be nicely browned in spots when done but not badly charred. If the chicken begins to burn, flip it over and reduce the temperature.

1 whole roaster chicken (4 to 5 pounds)

4 cups water
⅓ cup vegetable oil
½ cup orange juice
½ cup pineapple juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1½ teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon or 20 drops yellow food coloring

Flour or corn tortillas
Black beans or pinto beans

Cooking method

1-First butterfly the chicken with a pair of kitchen shears by cutting all the way down both sides of the backbone. Cut through the small rib bones and not through the backbone, but cut close to the backbone, so that you don’t lose too much meat. Once you have sliced down both sides of the backbone, remove it from the chicken. Position the chicken so that the drumsticks are pointing away from you and use a paring knife to slice through the white cartilage at the top of the breastbone. Bend the carcass of the chicken back at the cut and the breastbone will pop out. Run your fingers down both sides of the breastbone to pull it away from the meat, then pull it out. Remove any excess fat found inside the carcass, and your chicken is ready for marinating.

2-Make the marinade by combining all of the ingredients in a large bowl.

3-Place the chicken in a 3½- to 4-quart container with a lid and pour the marinade over the top. Cover and marinate for 48 hours in the refrigerator. Move the chicken around in the marinade a couple of times while it marinates.

4-When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat your grill to medium/low heat. Place the chicken, starting skin-side up, on the grill and cook for 2 hours or until the internal temperature in the breast is 165 degrees F. If the chicken is showing signs of charring after 30 minutes, turn down the heat a bit. If, after the first 30 minutes, you are getting no light browning at all, turn up the heat. Flip the chicken over after 1 hour and continue for the final hour.

5-Use a large knife to separate the chicken into 8 pieces: 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, 2 thighs, and 2 breasts. Serve with tortillas and your choice of beans, rice, and salsa.

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