When Fiesta Chicken chef and co-owner Francisco Robles created a chipotle ranch dressing laced with buttermilk, basil and other herbs, he didn’t fully comprehend the savory beast he had unleashed.
Slathering the addictive condiment inside the restaurant’s Grilled Fiesta Burrito a few years ago, he discovered a Groupon savior during tough times. “That’s why I’m in business, is because actually of that sauce,” Robles says. “Today, people come in and they want that burrito from the coupon.”
His wife, Ana G. Alatorre, soon hatched the idea for Chipotle Chicken Tacos with the dressing. Eyes rolled back in heads.
“I have customers who call those tacos ‘crack tacos,’ ” Robles, 41, says with a laugh.
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In spring, this West Boise secret will spread. After eight years at 10689 W. Ustick Road, Robles plans to open a second Fiesta Chicken restaurant and drive-thru. The larger location will be in the old Wendy’s building at 1450 S. Orchard St. — with luck, by April.
Last week, I had my first Fiesta Chicken taco. And chicken thigh. A Statesman reader, Kade Porter, had emailed me twice about this “hidden gem.” The dude was adamant. A self-proclaimed foodie, he wanted me to join him for lunch. “The food is incredible,” Porter, 46, insisted. “I would say that on average I eat there five days per week.”
What I discovered was a hole-in-the-wall with counter service. Minimal decor, a few tables. But the mouthwatering scent of marinated, charbroiled chicken filled the space. Satisfied customers sat and feasted on tacos, enchiladas and half-birds with knowing smiles and grunts.
OK, the chicken is killer.
“It’s such a good value,” Porter says. “And it’s amazing. ... Whatever he puts on the chicken before he cooks it should be like a controlled substance. I have eaten there for at least six years now, and it never gets old.”
“It’s part of the concept,” says Robles, who moved to Boise from Fresno, Calif. “(But) you’re not going to get the same taste you get here. At El Pollo Loco, you can see stuff that’s premade already.
“The only thing we don’t do here is the tortillas. But we sell a lot of tortillas for us to be making them by hand.”
A Boise native, Porter has tried El Pollo Loco. It’s good, he says, but not the same. “Definitely a different flavor, a different taste.”
Fiesta Chicken is different from most Mexican restaurants in Boise, Porter adds.
“When I go to a place like (insert well-known Idaho Mexican chain here), the food’s OK,” he says. “But I just walk away feeling like it’s heavy and too much cheese and just like, ‘Uh.’ Everything at Fiesta Chicken is super fresh and made that day.”
Porter’s buddy Dustin Aldrich, 45, is similarly hooked. Although Fiesta Chicken is west of Five Mile Road, he drives there from his job in Downtown Boise about four times a week.
“The reason I drive is I can go somewhere else and it’s going to be less food, more expensive, and it’s not going to taste as good,” Aldrich says.
His wife sees his debit card balance filled with Fiesta Chicken charges. At least he knows he’s not alone.
“I see the same faces over and over,” Aldrich says. “I know I’m not the only one showing up here for flippin’ lunch!”
For a long time, the two friends were locked on that Grilled Fiesta Burrito ($6.09). Aldrich raves about it as he crushes a Fiesta Chicken Salad ($6.60), which is supercharged with two sides of crack dressing — er, chipotle ranch goodness.
“That burrito,” Aldrich says, “it feels like it’s two pounds, and it’s all meat in there.”
Newbies like me gravitate to the California Combos menu, which includes sides and a drink in the price. For just over six bucks, you can get three Chipotle Chicken Tacos and a cold Pepsi. “That’s plenty of food,” Porter says.
It is. Those aren’t street tacos. They’re substantial. But for $1 more, you also get two sides. It might sound unorthodox to order mac & cheese at a Mexican restaurant, but don’t hesitate. I’d do that side again, along with the crunchy, sweet broccoli salad.
Ultimately, though, Fiesta Chicken is about two things: “The chicken and the sauce,” Aldrich says, “is what keeps me coming back.”
Robles is friendly but secretive about his marinade. “It has some orange juice in it,” he says, chuckling. “That’s pretty much all you’re going to get out of me.”
Maybe it’s best not to ask questions. As customers notice, Fiesta Chicken’s sign has a vague Los Pollos Hermanos vibe. Remember “Breaking Bad”?
If only Robles were scarier. He seems too nice to be a chef. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Mexico, he returned to California at 16 and got a job picking grapes. “I’ve never been to school here,” he says. “My only school has been working in different kitchens.”
He picked up his culinary skills working his way up at a Sheraton Hotel and Whole Foods Market. “They used to do everything by scratch,” he says.
Robles is excited about the bigger kitchen at his new Orchard location. The restaurant’s capacity will be 96 people, too, about three times the size of the Ustick Road space. Prices will not go up. “People look around the Valley, everything is more expensive,” Robles says. “As long as people don’t stop coming through that door, I don’t raise them (for) a while.”
Fiesta Chicken also will continue to be a family-run business. His daughter, Jacqueline, 17, and son, Francisco, 13, work in the restaurant on Saturdays.
With testimonials coming from patrons, the extended Fiesta Chicken family keeps growing. Porter says he can’t help himself.
“With all the attention about how Idaho and Meridian are such a great place to live — all the Californians coming here — part of me is a little conflicted,” Porter admits. “It’s like, ‘Ah, I don’t want everybody going there to eat.’ But honestly, it brings me a lot of joy. I refer everybody I know to go there.
“What’s amazing is that it only takes one time, one visit, for people. And then a lot of times, they’re mad at me for introducing them because then they show up again the very next day.”
▪ Fiesta Chicken is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Phone: (208) 321-7520.