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THE DISH: It's the thrill of the grill for new spot El Pollo Riko

For many restaurants, the secret boils down to good food and family, which can be the bedrock for growth and success. Such is the case with El Pollo Riko, which is set to open next week on California Avenue.

The fusion restaurant specializing in chargrilled chicken is connected to the Southland franchise Ay Papa Que Rico, founded by Chris "Toby" Rodriguez. Rodriguez's cousin Joe Behar partnered with Sergio Aguilar, one of the owners of the popular local Fresco Mexican Grill, for this new venture.

Behar said he is honored to carry on the tradition started by Rodriguez, who owns four restaurants in Van Nuys, Arleta, Sun Valley and Canoga Park.

"My cousin began this, and we tip our hats to him," Behar said. "We (Rodriguez and I) had no background in restaurants. We were home builders in L.A. In 2008, with the meltdown of the market, all the homes we had been building collapsed."

Rodriguez found a corner store in Van Nuys in which he saw potential for an eatery inspired by his Cuban roots. He created a menu with Cuban and Central American influences, serving flame-grilled chicken as well as ribs, steak, sausages, sandwiches and more.

El Pollo Riko will follow a similar recipe, focusing first on the chicken, available in whole and half combos, and other proteins.

"We have an open flame grill with real mesquite," Behar said. "We'll serve pork ribs, beef ribs and a diversity of sausages including Salvadoran sausage, which is popular with the English-speaking community."

For curious diners who have been popping by the restaurant before it opened, Behar handed out menus from Ay Papa Que Rico since the offerings will be very similar.

"The menu will be 95 percent the same. We might initially exclude some dishes to streamline. For example, we won't have ropa vieja — a very popular Cuban plate of shredded beef with seasoning, peppers and onions. We won’t have that initially but we'll add specialty items down the road."

Seven screens will display a digital menu along with short clips of how the chicken is prepared. That background, along with a tribute to Rodriguez on the restaurant's wall, is a way to help the new restaurant stand out.

"In L.A., very much like Bakersfield, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants, burger places, pizza places.There's nothing wrong with those themes, but it’s just more of the same. We wanted something different than other chicken places. The meats are mesquite-grilled.

"We wanted to truly bring a home-cooked meal only in a fast-paced setting. Everybody is on the run all the time so we want them to get the feel they're eating at home here."

(If you're wondering about the name, Behar said they wanted to give it a related name but not make it another Ay Papa Que Rico to allow it to make its own name for itself. As for the spelling, Behar said the variation with the properly spelled "rico" was already taken, leading to El Pollo Riko.)

Opening festivities will include a giveaway of 1,000 free meals over a monthlong social media promotion. Twenty-five meals will be given away each day over 40 days once the promotion starts. Follow the restaurant on Instagram (@elpolloriko) for more details.

Behar is excited to open in the coming week and hopes the community enjoys what they're serving. If all goes well, this will just be the first El Pollo Riko in the area.

"It’s one of the reasons I came out here," said Behar, who moved from Southern California earlier this year. "When I spoke to Chris and Sergio, we said if the vision of it takes hold here the way it has in L.A., maybe we'll be opening a few stores around here as well. We’d love to."

El Pollo Riko will open at 5620 California Ave., Suite A. For more information, visit

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.