What happens to a fast-food restaurant when it dies? Does the next Carl's Jr. or El Pollo Loco simply emerge fully formed, as from a Russian nesting doll? Or might the place morph into something more interesting?
Consider the case of the former Louisiana Fried Chicken/Happy Donuts location in El Cerrito, which reopened in September with a new name — Oralia's Kitchen — and a fresh "three-in-one" concept, featuring the cuisines of El Salvador, Mexico, and, yes, Louisiana. The result is a funky hybrid: part taqueria, part fast-food joint, part small-town family restaurant.
Sandwiched between a car dealership and a laundromat, the restaurant sits on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue populated by strip malls and fast-food chains — Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Church's Chicken. Oralia's Kitchen has vestiges of that fast-food ambience; you can even still see the "EN" from the old "Louisiana Fried Chicken" sign peeking out from underneath the "Oralia's Kitchen" banner in front. A handful of personal touches — Salvadoran embroidery and framed portraits on the wall — add a much-needed dose of warmth. (Though, on a chilly December morning, I wished the proprietors would turn up the actual heat.)
Mainly it's the food at Oralia's that transcends the somewhat generic setting: Most dishes are made from scratch, using fresh ingredients, and have a homey authenticity that won me over. Truth be told, there's nothing particularly "fast" about this food: Even the chicken is fried to order. The restaurant's namesake is Oralia Posada, a native of El Salvador, who took over the combination doughnut-shop/fried-chicken joint with her husband Jose Hernandez, who hails from Mexico, and brother Miguel Posada. All three have cooked professionally for years — Posada most notably at a Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant in San Francisco's Mission district called Los Panchos; Hernandez at La Palma Mexicatessen, another Mission stalwart. The trio kept a loose affiliation with Louisiana Fried Chicken, but otherwise revamped the menu to reflect their respective cultural and culinary backgrounds.
As for that Cajun-spiced fried chicken, suffice it to say it's above-average fast-food chicken, whose chief merit is the fact that it's fried fresh. (Note that Oralia's only sells thighs, drumsticks, and wings.) That said, in a spirit of innovation, the chefs combined the flavors of Louisiana and Mexico to create what might be the restaurant's most popular item, the gut-busting Fried "Chickurrito" — a burrito stuffed with Cajun-spiced fried-chicken strips, sour cream, lettuce, seasoned rice, and a chipotle cream sauce. Although it bore a passing resemblance to the fried-chicken wraps that are a fixture at some fast-food chains, this was noticeably fresher and packed with a lot more flavor. I especially liked how the crunch of the cool lettuce and the savoriness of the Mexican rice played against the peppery chicken. Entire food-truck empires have been built on much less tasty a food gimmick.
But the most compelling dishes were on the Salvadoran side of the menu. Start with El Salvador's most famous street food, the pupusa, which come two to an order, filled with either pork and cheese or loroco (an edible flower) and cheese. The fat, tortilla-like discs of corn-dough came to the table hot off the griddle — well charred, with an appealingly fluffy texture. The pork version was incredibly rich and savory; the loroco had that distinctive tang (like a cross between the flavor of a squash blossom and a marinated artichoke heart) that's much beloved by pupusa enthusiasts. Each order comes with the traditional accompaniment of curtido, a zesty fermented cabbage slaw — the kimchi of Central American cuisine. Whatever you do, use a knife and fork: Each pupusa gushed with scalding-hot cheese when I tried to pick it up.
Equally enjoyable was the desayuno Salvedoreno, Oralia's take on a traditional Salvadoran breakfast. It's an impressive spread: two eggs over-easy, fried plantains, sour cream, a bowl of rice and refried beans, tortillas, and a big wedge of Salvadoran queso fresco (a medium-hard cheese, like a more crumbly cotija). Had the kitchen not run out of fresh corn tortillas (leaving us to settle for decidedly unexceptional flour ones) during our visit, this would have been the perfect breakfast.
Meanwhile, the sweet-and-savory Salvadoran-style burrito guanaco, which had similar components as the desayuno, was one of the most interesting burritos I've eaten all year. It had no rice, no salsa, and barely any cheese (as far as I could tell), and instead relied on the interplay of a few ingredients: exceptionally juicy soft-scrambled eggs; starchy black beans; and sweet, nicely caramelized fried plantains. You can order this any time of day, but it makes for an especially satisfying alternative to a breakfast burrito.
Whatever you order, be sure to get a glass of the daily-changing agua fresca. These were, without exception, exceedingly refreshing. There are also always one or two daily specials listed on a chalkboard next to the register, and quite often they sound too intriguing to pass up. During one visit, the offerings slanted Mexican: crab enchiladas and some kind of meat-stuffed torta. Another time, the daily special was two Salvadoran-style pork empanadas, which turned out to be one of my favorite dishes. The empanadas had masa-based dough, which, when deep-fried, turned a deep golden orange, with wonderfully crisp texture and a caramelized, almost cheese-like flavor. The filling consisted of more of that loroco-cheese mixture and tender carnitas-style roast pork; piled on top were plenty of curtido and fresh salsa.
If one disadvantage of the "three-in-one" approach at Oralia's Kitchen is a certain lack of focus, one of the advantages is that there really is something for everyone. You want fast-food-style fried chicken or burritos? Central American home cooking, including a couple of obscure, hard-to-find items? Oralia's has you covered. Sure, you wait a little bit longer than you would at, say, Popeye's, but, especially with everything priced at $10 or less, I never saw anyone complain.