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I’m driving around Wheaton when I spot what seems like a mirage.

I do one of those cartoon double-takes. Did I just see what I thought I saw?

I pull my best Starsky and Hutch, wheeling back around in a squeal of tires. Sure enough, I saw what I thought I saw: the grand opening of the beloved-and-beleaguered Peruvian chicken joint, El Pollo Rico in Wheaton.

Actually, it is more like the grand re-re-opening, this time in a slick new strip center at the the corner of University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue.

In July 2007, four family members who run the business were arrested for money laundering and employing illegal workers, forcing the rotisserie-chicken eatery to close. A month later, it reopened to great fanfare among its many fans.

The revelry was short-lived. In February, a fire swept through the tiny restaurant with the long lines. It closed again, as owner Francisco Solano and his immediate family faced charges in U.S. District Court. Solano wife’s, Ines-Hoyos Solano, was sentenced last month to three years’ probation for her role in the crime; her husband’s sentencing is set for Dec. 17.

In the meantime, El Pollo Rico’s loyal patrons scattered to the several places in the surrounding neighborhood, creating a sort of rotisserie-chicken diaspora. But on Nov. 25, they came home. El Pollo Rico reopened at 2517 University Blvd (301-942-4419).

All but rubbing my eyes in disbelief, I sauntered into the shiny new digs. The old place was a glorious dive of smokiness and rickety tables. This new one gleams with melon-colored walls, hanging modern lamps with—-get this—-corkscrew-shaped energy efficient light bulbs and incongruous posters showcasing elegant women advertising movies (Breakfast at Tiffany’s; huh?), and liquor (Taittinger champagne and absinthe; huh?).

But you still go the counter to order, and you still get your food on a tray. And when you bite into the juicy, flavorful, crisp-skinned chicken, you still feel you have ascended to spit-roasted poultry heaven.

“Ahhh,” said an ecstatic Robin Conklin, who came to the former venue once a week from his office in Burtonsville with his Verizon co-workers. “It’s the best. We swear they put something in the chicken. It addicts you to it.”