by: Jim Clark, El  Pollo Loco opened Monday, July 14, at 22583 N.E. Glisan St. in Wood Village Town Center to a flood of hungry customers.

WOOD VILLAGE - At 10 in the morning, most diners may lean more toward eggs and hotcakes than flame-grilled chicken. That didn't stop workers at Wood Village's newest restaurant from being ready on opening morning.

There was some scurrying among the army of maroon-shirted employees in the open kitchen and behind the counter, but things seemed fairly under control.

'The employees are very excited,' said Manager Filberto Almaguer of his 70-employee strong staff. 'They're community people and very happy to be part of the opening.'

El Pollo Loco opened its first Oregon location Monday morning, July 14, at the Wood Village Town Center on 223rd Avenue and Glisan Street.

Wood Village Mayor Dave Fuller, on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the 3,000-square-foot location, said he's pleased to have a vibrant new restaurant to complement the Town Center shops.

'This is unique,' he said. 'We don't mind being first.'

Zesty, fresh and healthy may not be the best buzzwords for today's economic climate. They describe the flame-grilled Mexican chicken and side dishes at El Pollo Loco restaurants well enough, however, to spur the California-based chain's plans to expand into Oregon.

The bright, spacious lunch and dinner emporium is the first of at least 15 restaurants the company plans for Oregon in the next few years. The business model lends itself well to prospering even during economic slumps, said John Phillips, vice president of Franchise Restaurant Opening Group (FROG), the entity supporting new El Pollo Loco locations.

'Our brand really speaks across all socioeconomic levels and strata,' he said from his office in Costa Mesa, Calif. 'During a downturn, when it's sometimes a choice between a tank of gas or having a quick lunch with us, we'll still be one of the choices for going out.'

El Pollo Loco's menu is heaven for anyone who likes Mexican-flavored dishes or any number of citrus-marinated poultry-based concoctions. Their burritos boast fillings of pinto beans, cheese, guacamole and salsa. The Pollo Bowl and Ultimate Pollo Bowl include similar ingredients with a generous helping of chopped chicken breast. The former is one of several items marked with a heart symbol to denote healthier eating options. The skinless chicken breast meal, chicken tortilla soup, chicken leg, and beans, rice and cheese burrito are other items designated heart friendly.

From two pieces with two side dishes to 12 pieces and three large sides, El Pollo Loco offers dinners for group meals and families on the go. Side dishes - six of which are considered heart healthy - include steamed veggies, Spanish rice, barbecued black beans, cole slaw and refried beans.

Phillips emphasizes the restaurant's meal offerings as ideal for groups and busy families who want something beyond drive-through burgers and fries. He personally recommends the three-piece chicken meal with two sides and choice of homemade salsas, which are presented on an island in the dining room.

'It's a nice meal to put together yourself,' he said. 'It fulfills the need of families who want to provide home-quality meals in a great setting.'

Continuing its Northwest expansion, El Pollo Loco plans to open restaurants soon in Beaverton and Bend and is looking at Clackamas County and the Happy Valley area. After visiting Wood Village several times, Phillips is confident the restaurant will be a hit in East County.

'We're glad to plant our flag in Oregon,' he said. 'It's a nice community, and I think we'll be very successful there.

'If Oregonians give us a try, they'll be thrilled with our fresh, natural products.'

Want to know more?

What: El Pollo Loco, specializing in citrus-marinated, flame-grilled Mexican chicken.

Where: Wood Village Town Center, 22583 N.E. Glisan St.

Menu: Burritos, chicken meals with several side dishes, tacos, salads, nachos, desserts, soft drinks and bottled water.

Hours: 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m. to midnight, Friday-Saturday; 9 a.m. -11 p.m. Sunday.

To place an order: Visit www.elpolloloco

.com or call 888-375-8646.