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Omnivorous: Peruvian Pollo, Plus . . .

The charcoal-fired rotisserie chicken boom clears the way for an underrepresented Latin American cuisine.

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The corridor roughly bounded by Montrose and Irving Park Road seems to be a magnet for the South American charcoal-fired rotisserie chicken known as pollo a la brasa. Until last summer, when Flying Chicken closed, between Lincoln Square, Irving Park, and Albany Park there were four pollerias spitting marinated whole birds over live coals, and two more are now on the way.

For a long time the trade was primarily dominated by Colombians (Brasa Roja, Flying Chicken) and Ecuadorans (Mr. Pollo), and the 5,000 to 20,000-some Peruvians in the area (depending what source you believe) had no place to indulge a nationalistic allegiance to their own flame-kissed poultry. That must have been vexing, since Peru is preeminent among Latin American countries when it comes to pollo a la brasa.

"I would say there is a polleria on every corner," says Luis Garcia of his native Lima. Garcia, 36, is the owner of D'Candela, the first and until recently only Peruvian polleria in Chicago.

Four years ago Garcia, an NIU computer science graduate, couldn't find work in his field. But he had some savings he wanted to invest, and so without any restaurant experience he found a storefront on a lonely stretch of Kedzie and imported an eight-foot-tall stainless steel charcoal-burning rotisserie oven from home. It took five friends to wedge the thing into the tiny kitchen. Meanwhile, his dad, Luis Garcia Sr., already an avid home cook, went back to Peru to take a polla a la brasa class and returned with a pair of recipes, including one from a friend who owned his own polleria down there. Garcia took out an ad on a Peruvian AM radio program, and slowly his countrymen started coming.

He hired a Mexican chef, and at first La Granja ("The Flame"), as he called the place, only roasted chicken (using a combination of the two recipes) and served tacos, tortas, and burritos. But about half a year into it he found another chef, who'd worked at the city's first Peruvian restaurant, the late Rinconcito Sudamericano. They dropped the Mexican stuff and adopted a full Peruvian menu, introducing dishes such as lomo saltado, beef marinated, sauteed, and served over rice; big bowls of soup like the chowdery chupe de camarones; and ceviche topped with red onions lightly pickled in lime juice, widely regarded as the Peruvian national dish.

A few months later Garcia got into a trademark dispute with a Florida-based chicken chain by the same name that had opened a branch (now defunct) in Palatine. Garcia backed off, renaming the place D'Candela.

Peruvian food, which incorporates Incan, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese influences, is one of those undersung cuisines that's constantly being touted as the next big thing. What's striking about many of the dishes on Garcia's menu is their vividness. Peruvian riffs on fried rice—beef, seafood, or chicken, with brilliant chunks of red and green pepper, crispy scrambled egg, and green onions—are Technicolor to the black-and-white of your average greasy cardboard-container takeout. Chicha morada is a winey-purple sweet drink made from boiling ears of purple corn with cinnamon and clove. And the chupe de camarones is a deep bowl of milky red soup highlighted by deep red sprinklings of ancho chile and loaded with shrimp, poached eggs, blobs of chewy melted cheese, peas, carrots, and rice—it looks like the surface of Jupiter.

The tallarin verde con bistec shows its Italian colors—a slab of beef atop a mound of bright green spinach-basil pesto—and the aquadito, a brilliant green chicken soup the Garcias serve on weekends, gets its color from cilantro and spinach pureed into the broth. (As at most pollerias, soup stock is made with the leftover birds, giving it a deep chickeny flavor.)

And then there is the aji, the most distinctive accompaniment to Peruvian pollo a la brasa—a creamy pastel yellow mayo-and-mustard-based salsa, cool and tangy, with a hint of heat from the aji de amarillo chile and an herbal note from huacatay, or Peruvian black mint.

A spicier version, pale green in color, is made with jalapeños and served with the restaurant's other dishes. It's particularly good with the anticuchos, which anyone thinking about dabbling in offal for the first time should consider as a gateway organ. The marinated, skewered veal heart is tender and steaky, with just a little bit of livery funk.

About a year ago, Garcia split up with his first Peruvian chef and brought in his dad, who'd retired from his construction job. Luis Sr. makes a number of remarkably good Peruvian dishes—the lamb neck bone stew known as cordero; papas rellenas, mashed potato ovoids stuffed with ground beef, onions, olives, raisins, and hard-boiled eggs, dusted in flour and deep-fried; and the tilapia ceviche, big fresh chunks of fish marinated in lime with a mild sting of rocoto chiles. (Men seeking to enhance their staying power are encouraged to drink the marinade, known as leche de tigre.)

There are only two items the Garcias don't make in-house: egg-white-washed empanadas, stuffed (like the tamales and papas) with raisins, olives, and hard-boiled egg, and alfajores. The latter—wonderful light, shortbreadlike cookies sandwiching sweet dulce de leche and dusted generously with powdered sugar—are brought in by an elderly Peruvian woman from Bensenville.

As far as pollo a la brasa goes, the Garcias are no longer the only game in town. There are at least three other Peruvian places in the city now spinning chickens—Rosa de Lima and the relatively high-end Rio's d'Sudamerica, both in Bucktown, and the tiny Fina Estampa, which replaced the Mr. Pollo on Montrose.

But the Garcias' chicken is particularly plump and juicy, having been brined and then marinated overnight in about 15 different ingredients, including garlic, cumin, oregano, black pepper, vinegar, and beer. And while their spot is somewhat sleepy during the week, on weekends it's packed all day and well into the night with pisco- and wine-sipping Peruvians, who Garcia estimates make up 90 percent of his customer base. "I don't pay much attention to the competition," he says.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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