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Rojo’s Hot Chicken Kicks Up Southern Comfort Dishes With Mexican Flavors in Anaheim

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Former fine dining chef Roland Rubalcava fell in love with hot chicken after trying Howlin’ Ray’s

Rojo’s hot chicken sandwich in Anaheim.
Rojo’s hot chicken sandwich in Anaheim
Cynthia Rebolledo

Roland Rubalcava went from creating dishes at his family’s market, Rubalcava’s Bakery in Placentia, to working at Michelin-starred Taco Maria, and even opening his own well-received restaurant in Costa Mesa two years ago. But it was a trip to Howlin’ Ray’s in LA’s Chinatown that convinced him to turn in his fine-dining tweezers for a deep fryer.

“I have adored fried chicken ever since I was a kid,” says Rubalcava. “The first time I had Howlin’ Ray’s, it was amazing. I remember eating their fried chicken and thinking, ‘Man, I can do something with this.’”

Rubalcava says he took advantage of being in charge of staff meals at Taco Maria to perfect his version of the hot chicken sandwich: “The staff were like my test dummies.”

Fried chicken, and especially hot chicken, has trended as one of the most popular foods in Southern California. The expansion of hot chicken spots to the proliferation of national chains like Chick Fil-A and Raising Cane’s show Angelenos and OC-residents can’t get enough fried chicken. Even Popeyes launched their popular chicken sandwich in Long Beach. Now, Rojo’s Hot Chicken is one of the few fried chicken sandwich spots to put a Mexican spin on the dish.

Rubalcava’s hot chicken sandwich is American mestizaje at its finest — Southern in origin, Chicano in concept, Mexican in finish. His version starts with a sturdy bolillo — sourced from El Molino de Oro in Orange — toasted in chipotle aioli. Then comes the fried chicken breast (offered in varying spice levels: naked, Rojo, and Rojo X), that Rubalcava double drenches in a salsa macha hot wash so that the crispy skin stays intact with every bite.

Rojo’s hot chicken sandwich with grilled nopal on a checkered parchment.
Rojo’s hot chicken sandwich with grilled nopal

“It’s all about texture,” says Rubalcava. “We fry it hard but then the coleslaw softens it up a little bit and makes it perfect.” Butter pickles enhance the sandwich, lending tang and sweetness, along with American cheese singles, and a creamy escabeche-like coleslaw. A grilled nopal tops it off. “Nopal was very important to me because that’s what I wanted to differentiate us from everybody else,” says Rubalcava. “I thought about fried okra; it’s tangy and slimy in texture and reminds me a lot of nopal. So I thought, “‘Why can’t I use a grilled nopal in a Southern dish like fried chicken?’”

Rubalcava’s Mexican-style hot chicken sandwich shows heat peppered with cayenne and other spices, with just the right amount of balanced smokiness. Charred nopal adds a bright, vegetal bite while acting as a barrier to the macha seasoning’s fiery heat.

After three years of slangin’ fried birds with friend and partner, Jose Ponce, a former junior sous chef at Taco Maria, Rubalcava’s popular Orange County pop-up found a permanent restaurant space in Anaheim in late February. Then, coronavirus happened. Just two weeks after celebrating their opening, Rojo’s Hot Chicken closed completely, along with all other restaurants in Orange County, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s when it felt like we lost our momentum,” Rubalcava said.

Like many other restaurants, Rubalcava says they’ve had to pare back, refocus efforts, and rely almost exclusively on takeout. With the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan, Rojo’s temporarily reopened its dining room in Los Tacos Amigos, a taquería owned by his cousin. However, OC restaurants were ordered to close their indoor dining rooms after a few weeks, which means his business has just been takeout and delivery since.

Crispy tripas tacos
Crispy tripas tacos
Rojo’s [Official photo]

Though Mexican-style hot chicken is the main draw, the Anaheim native has an even more interesting spin on Southern-influenced Mexican food, using inspiration from a legendary now-closed Tijuana restaurant called Kentucky Fried Buches. A bit of a trademark infringement on the American fried chicken chain, KFB served deep-fried chicken necks in Tijuana’s red light district.

“I thought, ‘Why not do what they’ve done with buche with tripas,’” says Rubalcava. “Like Southern cooking, Mexican culture embraces offals.” Rubalcava uses the aforementioned salsa macha hot wash to make his tripas and serves them, as he likes to describe as “bien doradas” (really crunchy); the results are like a richer, meatier chicharrón. He garnishes the tacos with a relish of pickled onions, nopales, and cilantro.

“2020 has been rough, it feels like the world is slightly upside down right now but we have to adapt,” says Rubalcava, looking out the window of his restaurant at Lincoln Boulevard. “There’s so much unknown with the industry. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m just trying to make good food,” he says.

Rojo’s Hot Chicken is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Rojo's Hot Chicken

2235 W Lincoln Ave, Anaheim, CA 92801 (714) 833-5181 Visit Website

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