On weekends, hungry diners reliably line up by the dozens to grab a Styrofoam container from the takeaway window at Dino’s Chicken and Burgers on Pico Boulevard just south of Koreatown. What’s in those containers is largely the same: Glowing red bird draped over thin-cut fries and soaked in the restaurant’s famous “juice.” This meal is among the pantheon of local menu items that are arguably as famous as the Lucky Boy breakfast burrito — albeit reaching an entirely different audience. At face value the plate is little more than some wildly red-colored and charred half chicken offered with tortillas, cole slaw, and plenty of fries. But the name — Pollo Maniaco — points to just how crazily inventive it truly is.
The dish’s story of origin plants it firmly in Los Angeles: Its creation speaks to this city’s enduring immigrant communities and just how important restaurants can be to the neighborhoods they serve.
Dino’s Chicken and Burgers is the work of the Pantazis family, Greek immigrants who settled into Los Angeles around the middle of the last century. Founder Demetrios K. Pantazis opened its first location on Main Street with his brother in the early 1960s, and it still exists today as a standalone Dino’s run by that side of the family. After an amicable split in 1968, Demetrios took to Pico Boulevard, just off Vermont, to work up his own version of Dino’s for the large Greek community in the neighborhood. His brother still runs the Main Street location to this day.
The Pico Boulevard restaurant’s full name, Dino’s Chicken and Burgers, was originally a nod to the family’s fried chicken recipe, which was served as a headliner on the opening menus. There was also pastrami — already an enduring part of the casual dining that persisted in Los Angeles 65 years ago — and Greek diner staples like burgers and breakfast items. The restaurant’s now-famous char-grilled chicken wouldn’t come around for another ten years.
The famous fire red poultry was primarily just a home-cooking barbecue staple, but ultimately found its way into the Dino’s repertoire by around 1980 after some begging from family members, growing with local relevance all the while. And then came the pivotal LA Times write-up.
“When we were put in the Los Angeles Times is when things really took off,” says daughter Nicole Pitsos. “After that, the line was literally all the way down the parking lot.” The January 2000 piece in question is actually not from Pulitzer Prize winner and noted Pico Boulevard lover Jonathan Gold, but longtime Times writer Barbara Hansen, who describes the meal as “ravishingly good.” Local schoolchildren, she says, sometimes come by just for a taste of the french fries drizzled with that proprietary sauce. By the family’s own estimates, they go through well over 12,000 orders a week across all their locations.
It’s easy to understand why people love the Pollo Maniaco so much. For well under $10 anyone can walk up to an overflowing plate of food, then walk home, belly full with plenty of leftovers in tow. While the current price for a plate is listed at $7.25, many regulars remember the days when plates were well under $5. The bird is crispy from the high heat of the grill inside, but juicy enough thanks to the secret garlicky, slightly spicy proprietary sauce. It’s a dish at once familiar anywhere, but wholly unique to Los Angeles.
Demetrios passed away earlier this year, and many of the longtime workers not only came to the funeral, but spent time in the hospital with him as well before he died. Now his daughters Konstantina, Maria, Katerina, and Nicole keep operations humming, along with their mother and Demtrios’ wife, Eleni.
A testament to his legacy, the lunch and post-work chicken pickup rushes are a daily occurrence at the Pico Boulevard location, despite potential for dilution from the number of additional Dino’s outlets now running in Azusa, Pomona, Huntington Park, and Pico Rivera.
The Pantazis clan is even opening up soon in Granada Hills as they scout a few more locations. They’re open to franchising opportunities beyond their current locations too, but say the most important thing isn’t about getting the best deal — it’s about serving the community and maintaining a sense of family.
“80% of the people who work here have been here for ten years or more,” says Konstantina Andrews, showing off photos of her father palling around in the kitchen with longtime staff members.
In a way, Dino’s also belongs to the community. It was originally a staple of a predominantly Greek neighborhood backed by places like Papa Cristo’s up the street and Capitol Burger further on. But this stretch of Pico has over the generations turned into a pan-immigrant enclave: rich with Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Koreans, and more.
Dino’s is still a hub for the area, where people gather to eat, to smile, to ask for spare change. Folks here know the Pantazis family on sight, and approach with a kind word or a humble ask for a taste of food, something Demetrios routinely obliged during his years sitting at one of the small round tables out front.
During the Los Angeles riots, he and his business neighbors stood watch over the front door with guns in hand, protecting the business as much for themselves as the community — just like watchful neighbors and community groups had kept an eye on the building over the years. Demetrios watched as, across the street, three different buildings burned, unable to be saved by the national guard stationed on Pico Boulevard.
In some ways, those days are well behind the Pico-Union neighborhood now. The surrounding areas continue to explode with rising home prices and residential development, often squeezing out locals in the process while scrubbing away some of the more forgotten parts of a place’s history altogether. Already most of the Greeks have moved on, but the steadfast Pantazis women now keeping up the Dino’s legacy show no signs of washing away with them. “This will always be our father’s restaurant,” says daughter Konstantina Andrews, “Even though we all run it now.”
Dino’s Chicken and Burgers
2575 Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA