Better Than Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs

by Dorothy Reinhold on September 28, 2010

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Summer may be officially over, but grilling season is year-round in Southern California. At my house, there is nothing we savor more than a fall barbecue, with drinks on the deck, squinting into the last bit of slanting sun, and dinner on the patio wearing a light sweater to ward off the chill of the cooler evening.

Chicken is our default, and this fruity marinade is our most frequent choice. I call this “Better Than Pollo Loco” because it is! And that’s saying a lot, because the El Pollo Loco chain of restaurants is famous for its delicious signature menu item – flame grilled chicken marinated in a secret recipe of herbs, spices and citrus juices, following a recipe that was handed down from the founding family in Mexico.

While El Pollo Loco is a great choice for a fast food meal, we most often cook at home, so 20 years ago my husband came up with this copycat version that we like even better!

It uses a single-serving size can of pineapple juice (which I keep in the pantry for just this purpose), some other acids (lime and vinegar), some aromatics like garlic and jalapeno, and turmeric for a great yellow color. For best results, marinate overnight.

And just so we don’t leave anyone out, with indoor grills as a prominent feature on many ranges, grilling can also be a 12-month season for cold climates, as well.

Better than Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs

Pineapple and lime juices make a fruity marinade

Better than Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs

Use the zipper-top plastic bag trick to efficiently marinate the chicken

Better than Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs

Grill until done. Nice grill marks are always a plus!

Better Than Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs Recipe

Chicken thighs are the absolute best part (according to moi!), and will have best flavor if you have the bone in. Leave the skin on, for goodness sakes.


  • 6 ounces pineapple juice
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 cloves crushed garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced jalapeno, seeds included
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric* (see note below)
  • 2 1/2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (or 6-ish pieces of bone-in chicken like breasts, thighs, drumsticks in any combination you like)

Mix all marinade ingredients in a 2-cup measuring cup. Place chicken in zipper-top bag, pour marinade in and squeeze out air from bag before sealing. Massage chicken in bag to make sure all pieces of chicken are bathing in marinade. Marinate in refrigerator for half a day, or overnight; turn bag occasionally to ensure chicken is entirely covered.

When ready to grill, remove chicken from marinade (discard marinade) and grill chicken over medium heat until done, about 20-25 minutes, turning once for nice grill marks. You can add some moist mesquite chips to the grill for a smoky flavor.

Serves 4-5, depending on size of chicken pieces and appetites.

Serve with:

  • Salsa and chips as appetizer
  • Pinto beans (spiced with chile powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, cinnamon)
  • Mexican rice
  • Coleslaw spiked with jalapeno
  • Flan for dessert (or how about coconut pudding?)
  • Don’t forget the margaritas and cerveza!

*Note: Turmeric will stain, so try not to spill the marinade on light colored clothing or even on white grout on tile counters.

A freezer strategy: I make this all the time, and sometimes I even put the raw chicken in the marinade and then freeze the whole shebang in a zipper-top bag. When I want some, I pull it out and put in refrig to thaw, and by the time it is thawed it is marinated perfectly and ready for the grill! How’s that for efficiency? 

Better than Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas February 19, 2020 at 11:18 pm

Look yummy! One of my favorite Pollo Loco Chicken Thighs , nice to see your recipe, easy to follow, will cook this for family this weekend. Thanks you!


Erika February 12, 2020 at 5:28 pm

This looks incredible! The texture of this chicken looks 200 percent crave-worthy!


Marcia August 25, 2018 at 9:50 pm

How would this marinade work with salmon?


Dorothy Reinhold August 26, 2018 at 6:20 pm

I think you can try it, but I would not marinate it for nearly as long. Acids sort of “cook” the fish, so maybe a very quick 10-minute marinade, and then cook the fish over heat! I haven’t tried this….just my suggestion.


cecilia February 2, 2016 at 3:27 pm

Your marinade for the chicken sounds delicious, I dont have a bbq nor a indoor grill, can i bake it in the oven, What would be the instructions for this


Dorothy Reinhold February 2, 2016 at 4:33 pm

You can certainly roast this in the oven. I would say 350F degrees, for about 45 minutes should do it, for bone-in, skin-on thighs (drain off the marinade first).


Stacia Abe March 18, 2017 at 9:35 am

Hi Dorothy,
This marinade sounds delicious. I am definitely going to try it! I was going to try it in the oven. Why do you say to drain off the marinade first?


Dorothy Reinhold March 19, 2017 at 1:04 pm

The marinade is very liquidy, so if you put the chicken AND the marinade in the oven in a roasting pan, you’ll braise or boil the chicken, when you really want to roast it. So drain it off and then roast in the oven.


Dave Woolsey September 29, 2015 at 7:50 am

Hi Dorothy,
Just found your site a few days ago.
Very good looking recipes & different for me.
Am fairly new to cooking but enjoying it way more than I ever imagined.
Just tried this recipe & it was terrific! A real keeper.
Note: my wife & I have lived in Baja, CA for almost 10 years part time, so I know good Mexican food!

You had added a few comments at the bottom of the recipe under, “Serve with:” you have
“Pinto beans (spiced with chile powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, cinnamon)”
This has me really intrigued. I love beans. Cook them every which way.
Not very good at figuring out the proportion of spices however.
Would you please tell me how much of each spice you would add to a couple of 29 or 40 ounce can of beans? I just need a starting point. Can tweak it from there.

Thanks so Much
P.S. To make it a bit easier for you here’s the list of spices you mentioned,
chile powder
onion powder
garlic powder


Dorothy Reinhold October 6, 2015 at 8:28 pm

LOVE your enthusiasm! That idea was 5 years ago, so let me guess what I was thinking: how about 1/8 teaspoon of each, for a 16-ounce can of beans? Heat, taste and adjust any of those spices to increase whichever one you think it needs more of. (How’s that for a sentence?)


Dave October 12, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Thanks Dorothy, I’ll give it a try


Dorothy Reinhold October 12, 2015 at 3:44 pm

Let me know if it works for you!


Ellen Nathan September 6, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Just made this recipe, but I was out of pineapple juice, so I used blood orange juice. It was amazing. My guess is that you can use any juice, mango, pear, or any citrus juice that is sweet. I added olive oil because I was going to cook the recipe outside and didn’t want the chicken breasts to stick. I used boneless/skinless breast meat that I butterflied. By making the meat thinner it makes the marinade penetrate better. I also added sliced white onion for additional flavor. It was amazingly good. I will definitely make this again!


Dorothy Reinhold September 7, 2014 at 8:53 pm

Excellent…so glad!


Mario August 10, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Wow, these were fantastic. This is now my go to chicken recipe. Thanks for posting it!


Tanya Taylor November 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm

I am new to cooking. My mom didn’t cook; and I spent my 20’s eating from college cafeterias and military chow halls. I love El Pollo Loco. This marinade was excellent, and the chicken was super juicy. How can I make this hotter and spicer? I don’t want to go overboard, because I recently made some guacamole salsa that I couldn’t even eat! Also, I cooked the chicken as directed on our propane grill. Aside from grilling corn, I have never used the grill nor have I cooked thighs or chicken with skin. (I’m a skinless, boneless breast type of girl but I’m expanding my tastes for my boyfriend). Anyway, the skin got really black all over. The chicken was still juicy, just not the nice yellow color in the pic. Any ideas? Thanks.


Dorothy November 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm

So glad you liked it! To make it hotter, you may use a few shakes of Tabasco or other hot sauce in the marinade, or some powdered chili pepper if you have that. Either will work. You might need to experiment to make sure you use the right amount for YOUR taste buds, since it is such a personal thing, as you found out. You probably need to do 2 things when grilling your chicken (I am guessing from your description): 1. grill it at a lower heat. 2. don’t allow it to catch fire. Since the skin contains extra fat, you may have experienced more flare-ups and flames than when grilling boneless skinless chicken. If you get flames, put them out with a water spray bottle. Try that and let me know how it works for you! You can also roast the chicken in the oven if you can’t grill for whatever reason.


Karen @Living Low Carb July 16, 2012 at 6:24 am

Sounds good! I love your freezer tip!


Connie Kaiser September 6, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Made this Saturday morning. Marinated until Sunday evening. Amazing!!!! I routinely share food with neighbors and friends who stop by. Didn’t share this! (Am taking it for lunch this week!!!!)


Dorothy September 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for the compliment! I never give this one away, either. Is that selfish?


Jodie May 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Dorothy, I made the Pollo Loco chicken Saturday night — Oh! My! Goodness! I let one batch marinate two days (because of a change in plans) and made another batch w/o jalapeño for the kids (because I didn’t know how hot it would be) and that sat one day. The jalapeño batch really wasn’t hot at all, had more flavor, and picked up more of the pineapple notes sitting the longer time.

Thanks so much for sharing! It was a hit with family and friends! And I’m making it again this weekend for Mark’s family for Memorial Day barbecue!!


Dorothy May 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm

So glad you like it! Thanks for the details on how you did it each way. I’m sure others will appreciate your insight as to heat factor, especially as it relates to serving kids.


Surfer Girl October 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm

OK – you got me… they’re marinating as I type!

I’m leaning towards coleslaw as the side dish for tomorrow night’s dinner… got a recipe for that??


Jean at The Delightful Repast September 30, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Dorothy, it’s taken me a while but I’ve finally come to see the finer points of chicken thighs rather than always reaching for the chicken breasts. Can’t wait to try this! Your marinade sounds marvy–I’ve never tried pineapple juice in a marinade.


Dorothy September 30, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Jean, I never tire of cheerleading for thighs! The MOST flavor, the easiest to make well, without turning them to sawdust. They are very forgiving. And I am absolutely certain that eating the crispy skin on my chicken thigh contributes positively to my mental health!


My Man's Belly September 30, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Haven’t gotten just the chicken at crazy chicken in ages. I just can’t pass up those smoky black bean burritos (got a copycat for that?). But chix thighs rule for their own flavor and how nicely they play with others.


Let Cha September 30, 2010 at 8:14 am

To sippitysup,
What in the world does EPL have to do with drug cartels??? How ignorant a statement is that?

A Mexican came up with the ingredients for EPL then sold it to some American Corporation, we all know who. Ever since then the chicken does not taste or look the same at all so it is the American Corporation who is responsible for that changed flavor. Every Franchise seems to have its own control because I agree, some are awful, and some are tasty.

You should investigate a little bit before you show your ignorance.


sippitysup September 30, 2010 at 11:26 am

It was a poor attempt at political humor, for that I am sorry. But my facts are solid. El Pollo Loco started in 1975 in Guasave, Mexico a town in the Sinaloa region, where sadly the drug cartels have ruined life for decent people. I can accept that my joke may have fallen short, or was even inadvertently offensive. But ignorant seems like unnecessary name calling. PBS article attached. GREG


Tammy Steinsapir September 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Hi dorothy, if this was cooked in the oven, what temperature and time do you think would be used? Thanks, Tammy


Dorothy September 29, 2010 at 8:44 pm

I would do it at 350-375 degrees, for 45-ish minutes. A little more for bigger thighs maybe. Give it the poke test!
Let me know how you like it!


sippitysup September 28, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Ok. I am known for my big opinions and here they come. I HATE El Pollo Loco. Maybe it’s just the one by my house but it’s dry and skimpy and not WORTH the money. Okay I guess EPL is not going to be sending me on a trip to the drug cartels now. But are you ready for opinion #2? I LOVE this version, and I just wonder– did EPL start out this good, once upon a time? GREG


Dorothy September 29, 2010 at 6:41 am

Ha, Greg! The El Pollo nearest me is good! They don’t overcook it, but then again, I always get leg meat, which is more forgiving. I stay away from breast meat, which is often dry whoever makes it (imho). Opinions big and small always welcome here!


Kim September 28, 2010 at 12:38 pm

You get me. You so, get me. I HAVE to grill chicken thighs. And they HAVE to be marinated… WITH their bone-in, and skin ON. That’s what makes it good!!!

We keep pineapple juice in our pantry, too. Mostly for the Vietnamese stuff, but still. It’s so friggin’ hot the only way we can cook is if we use the grill!



Dorothy September 28, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Oh yeah, Kim, I rarely bother with any other parts, because thighs rule! Maybe a drumstick or two now and again. But you can eat one meaty thigh with crispy skin, and just be happy!


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