Down on Alvarado Street by the Pioneer Chicken Stand

Down on Alvarado Street by the Pioneer Chicken Stand

In “Carmelita,” Los Angeles balladeer Warren Zevon sings about the Pioneer Chicken stand on Alvarado Street. Some fans, however, feel he’s wrong about that location. Zevon disagrees. We investigate.

The Pioneer Chicken Location Controversy

In the liner notes of the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead anthology collection, Zevon writes that over the years people would inform him that the Pioneer Chicken stand he sings about in “Carmelita” isn’t located on Alvarado — it’s on Sunset. His response to these claims was just one word: “Really.”

Pioneer Chicken

Pioneer Chicken was a popular chain of fried chicken restaurants in Southern California. It began in 1961, and by 1979 the chain was flourishing with 270 locations marked by the famous icon of Pioneer Pete driving his chuckwagon while holding aloft a chicken. And a few of these restaurants just happened to be located along Sunset Blvd.

In 1966, Pioneer Chicken was coming soon at Sunset & Fuller. Photo by Ed Ruscha and featured in his seminal Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Courtesy of The Getty Research Institute’s 12 Sunsets project.

But the first Pioneer Chicken location was a simple a take-out stand at Echo Park Ave and Sunset Blvd (it’s now a Little Caesar’s), in the parking lot of the old Pioneer Market (which inspired the chain’s name) where Lassen’s is today.

Considering the lyrics of “Carmelita” reference Echo Park, the confusion of some fans about the intended location of Zevon’s Pioneer Chicken is understandable.

Finding Zevon’s Pioneer Chicken Stand

But in “Carmelita” Zevon wasn’t referring to the original location on Echo Park Ave. He lived in Echo Park after all, so it’s safe to assume he knew exactly which Pioneer Chicken he was singing about.


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The most probable location for the Pioneer Chicken stand featured in “Carmelita” is the 2000 block of West Temple St, just east of where it crosses Alvarado. The stand was located on the southeast corner, just east of a Denny’s. Neither restaurant is there today — instead, it’s home to an El Pollo Loco.

Alvarado & West Temple. Former Pioneer Chicken location. Photo from the author’s collection.

Alternately, Zevon may have been referencing a Pioneer Chicken stand at the intersection of Alvarado & Montana streets. There’s a parking lot for a Vons grocery store there today.

Alvarado & Montana. Possible former Pioneer Chicken location. Photo from the author’s collection.

These two Echo Park locations (well, the first is now in Historic Filipinotown) are just under a mile apart — and curiously, there’s a McDonald’s near each one.

With both Pioneer Chicken and Warren Zevon gone, we’ll never really know which location Mr. Zevon was signing about, but I’m doubling down on the Alvarado & Temple location. This was a popular place to score drugs in the 1970s, a major plot point in the song. Plus, I couldn’t verify there even was a Pioneer Chicken at Montana and Alvarado.

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Pioneer Chicken Today

The Pioneer Chicken empire dominated Southern California for almost 30 years, but it crumbled in 1988. The decline is commonly attributed to failure to compete with the Kentucky Fried Chicken juggernaut.

By 1993, Pioneer Chicken was all but erased from Southern California when Popeye’s Chicken bought the floundering chain and pivoted most of the remaining locations to Popeye’s restaurants.

However, if you want to try Pioneer Chicken today, there are two independently operated locations, one in Boyle Heights at 904 S Soto St (cash only!) and one in Bell Gardens at 6323 E Florence Ave.

Pioneer Chicken in Boyle Heights. Photo from the author’s collection.

You can also see some Pioneer Chicken merchandise and memorabilia at the Valley Relics Museum.

“Carmelita”

Warren Zevon wrote “Carmelita,” but he wasn’t the first artist to put it on an album. The song was first released by Canadian singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan on his second album (titled Murray McLauchlan) in 1972. Zevon didn’t release it commercially until his self-titled album in 1976.

McLauchlan sings the lyric “pawned my Smith & Wesson,” instead of the more commonly heard “pawned my Smith-Corona,” a change also made by Linda Ronstadt in her 1977 cover version. Zevon himself opts to reference firearm over typewriter during the occasional live show and on the 1974 demo of “Carmelita” that’s included on the posthumously released (2007) Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings.

McLauchlan’s rendition also includes the elusive stanza about the Samoan boyfriend that Zevon didn’t include on his 1976 album. But he did sing it occasionally during live performances, and it’s also part of the 1974 demo on Preludes. You can also hear a live version of Zevon singing the song with this stanza during the 1976 VPRO Studio Session, available for streaming and download at Archive.org (sanctioned and approved by Jordan Zevon himself).

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Down on Alvarado Street by the Pioneer Chicken Stand

  1. Thank you!! I’ve been a Zevon fan since I lived in Los Angeles, back when Warren first released his version of Carmelita. I’ve always wondered about the geography of the Pioneer Chicken reference. Now I know.

    Like

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