Fast Food Review: "Sirloin Steak" at El Pollo Loco

One of the most institutionalized absurdities in the American fast food industry is every chain's insistence on labeling most non-ground forms of beef as "steak." They all do it, yet it is a semi-farcical assertion on a par with Coors Light being referred to as "beer." Technically, yes, it probably fits some FDA definition, or they wouldn't legally be allowed to call it such, but if you were ever to go into a sit-down restaurant to order steak and got the stuff Taco Bell puts in their steak quesadilla, you'd revolt, and justifiably so.

All of which brings us to El Pollo Loco's new menu.

Sirloin steak, they say. Not exactly, says I...but the irony is a name-change might actually benefit the product. Because this beef tastes a lot like the thin, tender slices commonly found on skewers in the form of Thai satays. Calling it satay would potentially create cultural confusion in a "Mexican" establishment, but it's close to the truth.

If you're like me, you're burned out on the usage of "marinated" in any fast food descriptor -- everything is described that way, and the word has become meaningless. This, however, tastes like something that actually has been marinated. Wonders will never cease.

As to whether they grill it like their chicken, I admit to not actually having seen it on the grill at either of the EPL establishments I visited lately. Doesn't mean they're lying, but I don't know for certain if this is cooked fresh or just reheated. No matter. The taste is good.

Among the new items are tacos al carbon, steak chili, "grillmaster" tacos, and the quesadilla. I had the last two items. The quesadilla comes with two small ice-cream-scoops of guacamole and sour cream. Meanwhile, over at the salsa bar, I notice they've gotten rid of the brown, watery, I-wish-I-were-Baja-Fresh salsa and replaced it with a new salsa roja that looks to be primarily composed of crushed chilis, but is less spicy and more smoky than you'd think.

The quesadilla is fine, but pricey for what it is -- the steak bits in the real deal are smaller than those in the picture, shock of shockers. The irony is that the "grillmaster taco" is actually a better quesadilla than the quesadilla itself, stuffed with melted cheese, guac, salsa, and re-grilled. It's bigger than a standard taco, smaller than your average quesadilla, but very tasty. And depending where you get it, can be quite spicy...the first EPL where I tried this made their house salsa with diced raw jalapeno, giving it a burn to rival the salsas at genuine Mexican hole-in-the-wall joints. My second try found it much milder, so my suggestion is to taste test your local joint's salsa first; unlike most things at fast food joints, it doesn't seem to be standardized.

The grillmaster taco is about $2.50, the quesadilla about a buck more. The former has more ingredients, and is worthier of your time and pocket change. I have not tried the chili, though I suspect and fear that it, like many other fast-food "chili" variations, is merely a repository for beef bits that have been left out too long to be served in their original form. Just an unproven theory, though (legally, I have to say that; anecdotally, I've heard stuff I believe regarding certain other chains).

My spellchecker, by the way, does not like the word "quesadilla." Apparently I have a racist computer. And since computers can't drive or get into car crashes, I cannot cure it of this prejudice in proper Paul Haggis style.

If you liked this Fast Food Review, there are a bunch more here.

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