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 South University Boulevard, Centennial
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday
Pollo a la brasa, 2 sides, dark $7.49
Pollo a la brasa, 2 sides, white $8.49
Yellow rice $2
Peruvian beans $2
Mac and cheese $2.75
Fried sweet plantains $3
Inca wrap $2.50
Chicken burrito $5
Aji de gallina $8
Lomo saltado $13
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.
Unlike the pan flute music that plays in the background and the hammered copper plates hung on the yellow walls, the pasta is hardly authentic. Neither are the pulled-chicken sandwiches, wraps and burritos, but that shouldn't stop you from trying them. "The only tortilla in Peru is found at Taco Bell," Bob chuckles. More of a small soft taco than its name would suggest, the Inca wrap combines bits of dark meat, mild or spicy aji, lettuce and shredded cheddar on a flour or corn tortilla. Order one with a choice of sides, or with chips and a drink, for just $3.99. A dollar more gets a burrito inspired by the overstuffed varieties so popular in Denver, only with spit-roasted chicken, aji, yellow rice, beans and lettuce (but thankfully not the fries that the menu said were also included). This flour-wrapped creation was a friend's favorite, but I longed for the freshness of pico, the pucker of salsa.
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A native of Lima, Rosario cooks other Peruvian classics, such as empanadas stuffed with chicken or mango. The former is dusted with powdered sugar, which I'm guessing goes better with mango than creamed chicken — but I wouldn't know, because every time I tried to order one, I was given chicken instead. She also makes the carb-heavy aji de gallina, with rice and thick slices of potatoes covered in a creamy yellow sauce reminiscent of chicken pot pie, and lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry with onions, peppers and tomatoes that grew out of the Chinese influx into Peru in the nineteenth century.
But other than a fine housemade, caramel-soaked flan, which might inspire a few online searches, you won't find yourself pondering how to re-create the wraps or stir-fries or empanadas after you clear your plate and exit past the chicken suit hanging by the door. You might, however, find your brain returning to messy, bone-in chicken packed with cumin and black pepper. Then you'll know it's time: not to stuff herbs under the skin and preheat a roasting pan, but to hop on I-25 and head south.