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The commenter, like so many anonymous hatchet men hiding behind a T1 line, pulled no punches on the Young & Hungry blog post about the reopening of El Pollo Rico in Wheaton. “Hey, ‘ethnic eatery’ foodie snobs, why do you continue to enrich labor-exploiting small business owners like the Solanos? These people are unscrupulous and prey on poor people,” wrote “Mid-county Resident,” who linked to a U.S. government press release detailing the charges against owners Francisco and Ines Solano.
“At least the greasy burger franchise joints pay over-the-table wages, for the most part,” Mid-county added as a parting shot.
The comment really bugged me, likely because I was one of those ethnic food snobs who supported El Pollo Rico during a lengthy period when the owners schemed to launder millions of dollars while paying illegal workers under the table in cash. I felt like Mid-county Resident was calling me out for a personal lack of morals.
That’s when it hit me that there’s another layer to ethical eating, buried way underneath the heavier issues of animal rights, fair-trade products, sustainable ingredients, and organic foods. There are diners who will never frequent a restaurant or coffeeshop because the owners have crossed some line. Maybe they conspired to launder money, like the Solanos. Maybe they didn’t pay their employees in a timely manner, like Jonathan Umbel at the Tackle Box (Young & Hungry, “Oceans Apart,” 6/18/08). Or maybe they didn’t even pay their taxes, like Nick Cho at Murky Coffee on Capitol Hill (City Desk, “Even More on Murky Coffee,” 3/17/08).
“The establishment owes back sales taxes. A LOT of back sales taxes. This means that the money that me, you, and every other customer was paying out of their hard-earned cash to pay sales taxes was kept by the business,” one DCist commenter wrote last winter about the Murky muck.
“No latte art can reverse that breech of trust that I now feel…,” the commenter continued. “If Murky does re-open, I won’t be returning.”
If I have anything against the owners of El Pollo Rico, it’s not that they broke federal laws. It’s that they can’t train their staff to turn out consistently magnificent birds. One recent Saturday, my dining companion and I decided on a late-night Rico run. The line, despite the hour, was long, but at least it was indoors at the new location, away from a January night that felt like it could freeze your blood solid. Our half chicken had just the opposite problem: It suffered from the heat. The rotisserie man had clearly left the bird on the skewer too long, rendering the skin as hard as a hockey puck. Even worse, El Pollo Rico’s secret blend of spices had blown its cover: The half chicken was a card-carrying cumin-ist.
A couple of days later, those chickens were no longer lounging under a cloud of cumin. They were once again encased in a bronzed skin that, if not exactly crisp, at least was supple and savory, loaded down with salt, herbs, smoke, and God knows what else. The meat, even the thick breast section, had absorbed those flavors as if the chicken had been subsisting on the joint’s spice blend instead of grain feed. This was the stuff that had made El Pollo Rico famous, not the owners’ crimes, which the Solanos are already paying for.
Last month, a U.S. District judge in Maryland sentenced Francisco Solano to three years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release; in November, Ines Solano was sentenced to four months of home detention after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Other family members are serving time for their roles, too.
But the judge also ordered Francisco Solano to forfeit $7.2 million derived from his scheming. The government fully expects the Solanos to forfeit personal property to satisfy the monetary judgment, says Marcia Murphy, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Maryland. Fortunately, that property doesn’t encompass the family’s two restaurants, including the new operation in Wheaton. Murphy couldn’t address specifics on why the restaurants are off-limits but says the government generally doesn’t go after assets with little equity. “It would cost more to sell it than we’d get out of it,” she says.
Frankly, I don’t care about all that wrangling between the government and the family. What matters to me is eating well. I’m not being crass. I’ve just come to the conclusion that the palate is godless, amoral, and interested only in its own pleasures, and that’s how it should be. A palate whose owner suddenly grows a conscience is a palate destined to suffer a dull, flavorless existence. That is not the palate’s role in life.
As you can imagine, I hear stories about the locals on the dining scene. At first, I think I responded to them much like Mid-county Resident: Shock! Anger! Condemnation! But after a while I learned that everyone out there has someone who hates them, a disgruntled former employee, a jealous competitor, or just a miserable human being with a crappy outlook on life. Some of these folks wouldn’t mind if I ruined a restaurateur’s business, which isn’t probably so moral either.
But where does this version of ethical eating lead you? I’ll tell you: cooking at home, and maybe even then you can’t eat your own food if, perhaps, you’ve committed a crime, smoked marijuana, cheated on your taxes, or slapped your spouse. Maybe you should starve to death.
To deprive the palate of pleasure in the name of self-righteousness is, I think, a sin of pride. Or just haughty, if you’re not into that church guilt thing. The bottom line is, you shouldn’t get to know your favorite artists too well. Frank Sinatra likely had mob connections, but I’ll be damned if I’m throwing out my collection of Chairman CDs. Michael Jackson likes young boys, but I’ll still dance to Off the Wall any day. Wesley Snipes doesn’t like paying taxes, but I’ll never part with my copy of White Men Can’t Jump.
“I don’t think most people want to get involved in any drama,” Tackle Box’s Umbel told me the other day when I asked him about the subject. “At the end of the day, people just want to eat great food.”
Which probably explains why El Pollo Rico, despite the economy, despite the negative publicity, has experienced only a “slight” drop in business since it reopened in November, says Juan Carlos Solano, son of Francisco and Ines.
We all, it seems, give into temptation in some way, whether breaking the law or dining in a lawbreaker’s restaurant for our own pleasure. I’m just glad the latter doesn’t land you in jail, because I’m not stopping.
El Pollo Rico, 2517 University Blvd, Wheaton, (301) 942-4419.
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