Three armed guys come through the door. They’re all chunky hardbodies, wearing what look like bulletproof vests. Written across their backs, one word: PROBATION.
3055 Harding Street, Carlsbad
They head for the counter. Maria, Rosana, and Carmen face them at their cash registers.
“Chicken combo,” says the first officer.
“Same,” says the second guy
“Same,” says the third guy.
“Absolutely,” says the first guy.
It’s a fresh, cold, hard-sunned Carlsbad lunchtime. We’re on what’s really a residential street. I spotted this place from Carlsbad Village Drive. Red umbrella tops peeping over a hedge. And was that a sign on a low wall? Also, laughs and a murmur of voices?
Now I gotta find out. I pass all these bungalows till I come to one more, except this has its front lawn converted to tables and umbrellas for the people sitting here.
The sign says “Pollos Maria. Mexican Broiled Chicken.”
So, in a world of KFC and Taco Bell (there’s one down the road), what’s one more chicken place? On the other hand, a chick in hand is worth two in the bush, as my grandma used to say.
And besides, even in the cool of this sunny garden, you get drawn in. You want to be part of it. And the way some folks are gouging into their steaming chunks of chicken, I’m starting to salivate.
I come inside into what must have been the house’s living room, before Maria came along. It’s warm out of the breeze, and the decor’s warm. Forest-green wall tiles, vines hand-painted along cream ceiling beams, a salsa area with bowls sitting on a bed of ice, and behind the timber counter, a big, smoking rack of chicken breasts, thighs, and drumsticks grilling away, ranging from light to deep golden. These people are expecting company! I like that they have the whole cooking operation in full view. And clean.
All the crew are wearing red golf shirts, except for the big guy at the cash register. He’s in green. Juan, the manager. Waiting for my order. I lift my eyes to the rack of menu boards above. Hmm... Thought this was going to be simple. But I see they have a zillion ways of filling you up. All-day breakfasts like an egg-and-cheese burrito, with corn tortillas and red-skin potatoes or frijoles for $4.29. Or a plate of bacon, egg, and cheese, same sides, for $6.89. Good prices. Then, the whole panoply of traditional Mexican: quesadillas ($5.99; $7.29 with carne asada), beef tacos ($3.49) fish tacos ($3.99), adobada (pork) street taco (smaller, probably), $1.79. Chicken tostadas are $5.69; carne asada tortas, $6.99; and savory tamales — using lard! — $2.69 for chicken or pork, $2.29 for sweet.
“What’s most popular?” I ask Juan.
“Number 3 or number 11,” he says.
Number 3 is the “Casa Mini” combo plate of two chicken pieces plus tortillas, rice, and refried beans. Costs $7.79. Deal. But as I stare at the board, it strikes me that #5, Medio Especial, basically the same dish, but with four pieces of chicken, is the better deal at $10.19, just $2.40 more.
Then I’m hearing the voice of the beautiful Carla.
“Bedford! KISS! Keep It Simple, Stupid. You want chicken? So, eat chicken. Just pay for the chicken, not the other stuff. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Uh, ho-kay. Juan is looking at me, and now people are behind, making shuffling sounds. One more quick look at “Maria’s Casa Especiales.”
“#1: Whole chicken, $16.79.” No way.
“#2: Half chicken, $8.79.” Way.
“Number 2,” I say, and go for corn tortillas, part of the deal. And I get a bottle of Negra Modelo ($3.99). Almost got the house white, ’cause wines are all only $3.50.
And just as I’m sitting is when the Probation guys arrive. By the time they’ve sat down with their #3s, I’m getting curious, about their job.
“Does it ever get physical?” I ask.
“Not usually, but let’s just say some people are not thrilled to see us,” says one.
And that’s it. They’re not supposed to talk work with civilians like me. And besides, they want to chomp into their steaming pollo combos.
Me, too. And Carla was right. All I want is chicken meat and more chicken meat. The golden skin is dee-lish. I try some of the fixin’s, like the salsas, but actually the taste on its own is the best. Total umami. Have to ask Juan what the secret is.
“Mainly we let it marinate in lemon and lime, and some orange juice, with white pepper and garlic. That hasn’t changed since Marie opened, 32 years ago.”
I do put some of the dark red smoked-jalapeño salsa on. So smoky. Guy next to me, Chris, is scooping up a little bucket’s worth of the stuff.
“They’ve always made all these salsas fresh every day,” he says. “That’s why I get my salsa here for my carne asada that I make at home. Can’t beat fresh.”
Chris’s bill today: $1.93.
“I’ve been coming here since they opened in 1985,” he says.” Nothing has changed.”
“Well,” says Juan, “back then we only charged $3.75 for the #3 chicken combo. But the food is exactly the same. Marie makes sure.”
Turns out Marie is the Maria the place is named after. She and her friend Janice have been coming here every day till recently when they opened a second place in Oceanside.
I’m so glad I just went for the chicken. This lot totally fills me up. Thanks, Carla.
But, uh...listening to voices? No prob. Glad for the company.
3055 Harding Street, Carlsbad
Prices: Breakfast egg-and-cheese burrito (with potatoes or frijoles and corn tortillas), $4.29; bacon, egg, cheese, same sides, $6.89; quesadilla, $5.99 ($7.29 with carne asada); beef tacos, $3.49; fish tacos, $3.99; adobada (pork) street taco, $1.79; chicken tostadas, $5.69; carne asada tortas, $6.99; “Casa Mini” combo plate (two chicken pieces, tortillas, rice, frijoles), $7.79; Medio Especial combo plate (four pieces of chicken), $10.19; whole chicken, $16.79; half chicken, $8.79; savory tamales, $2.69 (chicken or pork); sweet tamales, $2.29
Buses: 101, 315, 325
Nearest Bus Stop/Coaster stop: Carlsbad Village train station, 2775 State Street (at Grand Avenue), Carlsbad