It happened in New York City: The first time you ate Pollo a la Brasa — a crispy rotisserie chicken that’s marinated and caramelized over an open flame.
You rejoice — this ain’t your mother’s market rotisserie — those sad birds confined to their plastic escape pods and set on a shelf, only to dry out under the oppressive sun of Krypton.
If you asked for rotisserie chicken in heaven, you’d get Pollo a la Brasa. The chicken’s skin is seared and salty like a bacon-wrapped hot dog and the tender meat is juicy, reminiscent of fried chicken, but flavored with salty soy sauce, fresh cilantro, savory oregano, peppery ginger, and sweet, buttery roasted garlic flavors.
If this sound like intercontinental fusion, don’t be surprised. Peru’s traditional cuisine is a literal fusion of Incan, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese cultures.
Pollo a la Brasa is so beloved in its native Peru that it has its own national holiday and it’s even used to measure the well-being of the Peruvian financial market, kinda like the Big Mac Index.
Typically served with rice, beans and an irresistible ají verde — a spicy citrus green sauce with lime, chiles, garlic, scallions and cilantro whisked in olive oil.
You first stumble upon this deliciously haunting “poultry-geist” when you kill a few hours waiting for a car tune-up in Ozone Park, Queens. Yelp reveals a nearby blip on the radar: About 10 votes for a place called Don Pollo.
You sit down and are presented with free cancha (the OG Corn Nut made from special corn kernels) and the green sauce.
The waiter brings you half a bird ($8!) and your mouth makes sweet love to a carcass for the next 30 minutes. In a mindless, mechanical procession you fork a mouthful of chicken, spoon a ladle of green sauce, and prepare for take-off. Rice. Beans. Repeat.
Later, you need another fix of that sweet, sweet chicken, so you chase down the bird they named best in 1994 New York.
The restaurant Flor de Mayo, located in Manhattan, comes more from the Chinese quadrant of the Peru-niverse. The chicken here is tasty, but the skin is soft and the green sauce is really a disguised ponzu, it’s effervescently pungent but not garlicky enough for you.
That itch again. You lurk into Pio Pio, a chain of mid-scale restaurants that have covered New York with a healthy supply of juicy chickens.
You get talked in to Pio Pio’s Matador Special: A whole chicken accompanied by a plate of French fries covered in fried hot dogs, plus a side salad, rice and beans.
Pio Pio’s chicken skin was flabby, greasy and stretchy. You keep imagining your Aunt Helen oiled up in a bikini after her gastric bypass surgery.
Unsatisfied, you shrink in to Luz Restaurant in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, but it’s a costly mistake. The whole chicken dinner and regrettable side orders of greasy fried yucca and underwhelming cilantro mashed potatoes came to $45.
You’re jones-ing again in the Upper West Side, and so you duck in to El Malecon Restaurant II, a Dominican micro-chain. You were tempted in by the night glow from their front window rotisseries.
Malecon’s chicken is as good as Flor de Mayo, but their green sauce is a vinegary tomatillo salsa. It tastes like nuclear pickle juice (a compliment), but it doesn’t stand up to ají verde.
After this newfound addiction to the best rotisserie chicken on earth and a jaunt through some of New York’s popular Polla a la Brasa eateries, you plot upcoming trips to the meccas:
- El Gran Azul, the restaurant in Lima, Peru credited with creating the modern interpretation of the dish
- Pollo a la Brasa in Los Angeles. Apparently, they have cords of wood stacked outside and roast your chicken over an oak fire. And yes, they have green sauce.
But for now, your craving has subsided. It could be all the poultry antibiotics surging through your system, playing mind-tricks on you, and temporarily halting your pursuit.
You think, “Well, this won’t last.”