Chicken is seldom my protein preference when I'm dining out; it's just such an everyday meat without personality or pop. Kids eat a lot of chicken — when they're not eating other bland foods like white bread, juice in a box and orange crackers shaped like fish. Fried chicken, when done properly, is a step in the right direction, but more because of the salty, spicy crust than the meat itself — which almost always tastes like, well, chicken. Cooking chicken at home seems like a reasonable thing to do; it's cheap, easy and less environmentally devastating than beef, less of a killer than pork and certainly less cute than lamb. But there's at least one exception to my unwritten chicken rule, and that's Peruvian poultry purveyor La Polleria in Centennial.
When Gretchen Kurtz reviewed La Polleria two and a half years ago, she suggested hitting the place right at 11:30 a.m., when the spit-roasted birds are fresh out of the rotisserie cooker, so that's just what I did, half-expecting a locked door in the quiet shopping center it calls home. La Polleria looks like a chicken restaurant in every way: Another set of unwritten rules governs the decor (minimalist and sunshine yellow), the location (unobtrusive, probably next to a check-cashing store or a nail salon) and the facade (plenty of signs in the window advertising things other than chicken). But inside, bags of mesquite charcoal stacked against one wall and the enticing smell wafting from the Peruvian oven let you know that this is a place that treats chicken with respect, flavoring not only the skin but the meat itself with smoke and marinade so that each bite tastes like, yes, chicken, but also more than chicken.
The menu offers several combinations of light or dark meat with plenty of sides to choose from. It's a setup familiar to barbecue enthusiasts and the end product is certainly something hunters of proper barbecue would endorse. While tangy is possibly the one missing flavor component, all the other elements are there: slow cooking at low temperature to ensure moist and toothsome meat, a rub that combines complex seasonings into an intangible melange, and a dose of something exotic that you can't quite put your finger on but brings everything together. In American barbecue, that might be something like molasses in the sauce, but at La Polleria it's tamari (similar to soy sauce, only without wheat). And, of course, the subtle but distinct presence of mesquite smoke, which permeates every bite down to the bone.
Pollo a la brasa, as it's called in Spanish, is as common in Peru as burger joints are in the U.S., but otherwise there's nothing distinctly South American about the flavor or cooking style. The sauces and sides, though, add distinct Peruvian ingredients: creamy and tongue-searing aji amarillo sauce made with chile peppers of the same name, fried plantains in both sweet and savory form, rich and creamy mayocoba beans, yuca fries and yellow rice with corn. But more familiar sides are also on offer, from a straight-up macaroni and cheese distinguishable from the American classic only by the shape of the pasta, to a simple green salad, to fries, coleslaw and baked potatoes.
A combo plate of chicken comes with a side of mild or spicy aji amarillo, but the chicken is so flavorful, so balanced, that the sauce goes to better use on potatoes, yuca or plantain. And if you're not a fan of chicken on the bone, La Polleria offers sliced or shredded chicken in various forms: stir-fried with vegetables atop a mound of fries; mixed with aji amarillo and spooned over boiled potatoes (or all that inside an empanada); or even inside burritos, wraps and sandwiches — listed as "fusion cuisine" on the menu (as if anything in burrito form needs a fancy culinary term to justify its existence).
For those entirely put off by chicken, there are a handful of dishes with beef — like the Peruvian staple lomo saltado — or salchicha (a more alluring name for the common hot dog). Among the tropical ingredients and Latin American preparations hides a dish of pure genius: salchipapas, which takes its name from salchicha and papas (potatoes). It's nothing more than Yukon Gold fries topped with a mess of thin-sliced and pan-fried hot dog. But baptized in a bath of aji amarillo (ask for an extra serving to do the job properly), salchipapas may be the ultimate expression of American junk food converted into international street food.
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Inca Cola, chicha morada (a purple drink made from corn), flan and alfajores (sandwich cookies) round out the Peruvian menu items and give the suburban chicken shop a more worldly feel than the setting alone implies. If Centennial is a cross-town haul, call ahead and order a family-style meal, which gives you the option to tote home a couple of whole roasted birds and enough sides to feed a hungry sports team. If you're nearby and just haven't gotten around to trying La Polleria, maybe you're like me and chicken just doesn't call out to you. Despite my general poultry apath,y though, I've come around to the belief that there's a style of chicken for almost everyone — and pollo a la brasa from the spits at La Polleria is certainly mine.