Invented more than a half-century ago by a Swiss immigrant living in Lima, pollo a la brasa is a juicy coal-roasted chicken with crackly skin. La Granja Azul, the birthplace of the dish, was a supremely glamorous restaurant at which waiters delivered platefuls of chicken until diners begged them to stop (which sounds something like eating oysters at Bowen’s.) But casual chicken joints, or pollerias, are now the norm in Peru and major American cities.
According to Yelp, North Charleston has its own polleria: Pollo Loko Peruvian Cuisine on Dorchester Road specializes in chicken. Yet when I ordered a one-quarter bird portion on a recent visit to the restaurant, the chicken I received was lacking all of the classic a la brasa hallmarks. Its seasoning wasn’t dominated by garlic, and there weren’t any sauces served with it. Stranger still, it was accompanied by rice, beans and shredded cabbage, rather than the traditional French fries.
It was a perfectly good, fairly-priced meat-and-three plate. But like the music playing in the strip mall restaurant and the tortillas on the table, it appeared to have originated a few thousand miles north of Peru.
I double-checked with my impressions with Morena Cuadra, who with her daughter co-authored The Everything Peruvian Cookbook. On her blog last year, Cuadra outlined the nine “secrets” of great pollo a la brasa, which she refers to as “a golden passion.” The secrets range from the size of the chicken to the availability of lemon pie for dessert, but most of them center on the preparation and presentation of the chicken.
The secrets include two “compulsory side dishes,” which Cuadra describes as “a light, fresh and basic lettuce, tomato, and avocado salad with vinaigrette dressing, and thick French fries, cooked twice for the perfect crispiness. We prefer Peruvian potatoes, of course!”
Sauces are similarly regimented: ketchup and mustard are optional, but Cuadra tells me the restaurant should provide “chili pepper; mayonnaise and huacatay – this one is green.” The mayonnaise-based sauce gets its color from huacatay, or black mint, although cilantro is sometimes added to the mix.
Finally, Cuadra says, “The chicken itself should has been marinated twice, so it is very flavorful, juicy and tender.”
The chicken at Pollo Loko is all of those things. It’s just a few French fries, sauce and seasoning short of qualifying as a true Peruvian chicken.