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Roast-chicken fanatics tout experiencing the bird with bread salad at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe the way others talk about climbing the Eiffel Tower or bagging a peak. Some buy the restaurant's cookbook and start on the recipe two days in advance, drying, salting and stuffing herbs under the skin in hopes of pulling off more than a pale imitation. Others study The Best Recipe, because the folks at Cook's Illustrated tested the dish fourteen ways and wrote convincingly why a 275-degree oven isn't the solution, nor is basting the bird every quarter-hour with butter.
So it's interesting that in Peru, there's much less argument about basting, brining and temperature — not because Peruvians don't love roast chicken, but precisely because they do. If they don't nitpick over details on how to prepare it, that's because unlike arroz con pollo, which is made at home, roast chicken is the domain of no-frills eateries called pollerias. But pollerias are rare in this country. Ceviche has hogged the spotlight ever since a Peruvian restaurateur started opening high-end cebicherias in New York and San Francisco a few years back. Here in Denver, Taita has been turning heads for its polished Peruvian fare. But pollo a la brasa? It's standing shyly in the corner, afraid to crow about how it deserves to be the national dish.
See also: Behind the scenes at La Polleria
7422 S. University Blvd.
Littleton, CO 80122
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
For the past year and a half, Bob and Rosario Van Diest and their sons, Ryan and Jason, have been operating their own polleria, aptly named La Polleria, in Centennial, not far from where they live. Given its bright lights, few tables and order-at-the-counter set-up, you might think that La Polleria is a link in a fast-food chain, similar to the CiCi's Pizza, Papa Murphy's and Subway alongside it, but it's not. The Van Diests operate their own independent spot, where authentic pollo a la brasa is the specialty, made in an imposing six-spit brick oven imported from Peru. And if you're lucky enough to come while Bob is manning the counter, he'll be more than happy to tell you all about it.
Pulling out a black-and-white diagram, this genial former real-estate agent will explain how fat drips to the bottom, where it's recycled as biofuel, and how flames never spit up to the meat. Pay close attention to the part about the mesquite charcoal housed in the back; the smoke it produces is one of the main reasons you're here. The other is the marinade, and he'll tell you about that, too, minus details of the secret family recipe, before wrapping up the discussion by offering a taste of chicha morada — a bit like sangria, only sweeter, purple (it's made from purple corn) and non-alcoholic. Rosario seems less comfortable with the dog-and-pony show, though, so if she's behind the counter when you drop in, you'll have to wait for your tray of food to be delivered to see what's so special about this bird.
For starters, it's moist, a tad more so in the dark meat than in the white, but that's par for the course with roasted whole poultry. Short of partially deboning a chicken and putting it in a pan under something heavy — a brick, for example — there's no getting around the fact that some poultry parts stick out more than others, and thus receive more or less heat. But even with the white meat being a bit dryer than the dark, I've never stuck my fork into a breast here that I'd call dry — much less rubbery or mealy, as grocery store rotisserie chickens tend to be. Some of this moistness is because the kitchen starts with a good product from Red Bird Farms. Some results not from the use of a brine, as you might expect, but a gluten-free tamari marinade. You won't pick up any overt soy, but you will enjoy heavy doses of cumin and black pepper, massaged in a thick, black layer below the skin.
Speaking of which, that skin is the only disappointment. Of the numerous quarter-chickens I've eaten at La Polleria, the tantalizingly bronze skin always yielded meekly to my fork. Blame it on the relatively low temperature; the oven runs at 350 degrees, well below the 475 degrees suggested by Zuni Cafe, and without the final blast of high heat found in so many recipes. Warmers don't help matters, so if you want crisp skin — or as close to crisp as you're going to get — come around 11:30 a.m. or 5 p.m., when the birds come off the spit.
In Peru, pollo a la brasa goes hand in hand (or wing in wing) with aji, mild and hot dipping sauces made here from canary yellow aji amarillo peppers (mild), or a mix of local chiles and imported aji rocoto peppers (hot). Creamy and without the pop of vinegar, the sauces have more in common with salad dressing than salsa. While tasty, they can overwhelm the meat, which is packed with its own flavor.
Salad and fries traditionally complete the dish, and that's how the Van Diests offered it in the beginning. But the salad is iceberg, and the fries, though hand-cut Yukon golds, never seemed as hot or crisp as they should be, so you'll be glad the owners veered from tradition to offer more interesting options, such as mashed Peruvian Mayocoba beans; rice flecked with corn kernels and stained bright yellow from a turmeric-like spice called palillo; fried sweet plantains, with webs of caramelized sugars lacing across their sticky edges; and even macaroni and cheese, with pasta shaped like a cartoon tornado and coated to order with cream, cheddar and Monterey Jack.
Haven't been here yet-been meaning to and it sounds great. Pisco Sour Lounge on E Colfax is worth a visit as well for their pollo and fries. They also have a full Peruvian menu with favorites like anticuchos.
The aji is like salad dressing? What is Gretchen Kurtz talking about?!? That stuff is an ambrosia of spicy, herbaceous delight. I put it on my chicken, rice and dip my french fries in it. I would roll around my entire body in it if I could. The closest thing to a perfect meal in Denver is a half roast chicken, a plate of fries and a bowl of aji at La Polleria. Forget about the rest of Gretchen's half-baked review.
In case you missed it, the above review is trying to say that the food at La Polleria is good. And to add to that: it is SOOO good. I absolutely love this place and think Denver is lucky to have it - the flavors and quality of ingredients are five star, and the family that owns and runs it, day in and day out, are the nicest people. Gretchen did not get across how impressive this place really is. If you like food to taste homemade and to highlight the quality of simple ingredients, and if you appreciate being treated kindly when you dine out, you should make it a priority to try this place. Leave Chipotle or Panera for another night - you won't regret it.
Exactly, Vicki...in the restaurant wasteland that is Littleton/Centennial/Englewood south of Hampden, it kills me to see the lines at Chipotle/Olive Garden/Subway when they could be going to La Polleria. It would be win/win....you for getting some of the best chicken you will ever have and Bob and his family for having the drive and passion to open up in this chain-laden cesspool. My greatest fear is stopping by and seeing it shuttered in part because I didn't go there enough...go there, dammit!