Editors' pick

Carbon Peruvian Chicken & Grille

Latin American
$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Fast Food, leisurely touch
Tastes of Peru and Bolivia in the 'burbs
By Tom Sietsema
March 6, 2011

Spending five minutes to order in most fast-food joints is 4 3/4 minutes too long for me. In light of the care and attention a diner routinely receives when ordering a meal at the self-service Carbon Peruvian Chicken & Grille in Rockville, however, it's time well spent.

"What's a 'Jugo Especial'?" someone in my party asks the young clerk behind the counter. Her enthusiastic explanation of the drink, one of several listed on a little chalkboard, is so thorough that she basically hands over the recipe: egg, banana, papaya, milk and algarrobina, the honeylike syrup from the black carob tree. "It's very good for you," she talks up the smoothie.

When I'm debating what other side dish to get with an order of black beans and the eatery's signature chicken, the menu adviser steers me to oiled white rice, because "our beans are soupy."

Like so much of the cooking in this tidy storefront near the Rockville Town Square, the intense, inky black beans are also very appealing. Carbon Peruvian Chicken & Grille is the nearly year-old sibling to La Canela, the regally dressed Peruvian restaurant owned by Lilian Clary and her family - just a few numbers up the street.

Clary isn't worried about the two competing with each other, however. At La Canela, she says, the dishes are "very elaborate." Carbon, with its bright yellow tabletops and help-yourself sodas, offers easy-to-eat sandwiches in addition to chicken. Having the two businesses within a tamale's toss of each other is actually an advantage: Whenever Clary needs assistance or more butter for the youngster, she says, she can simply call over to her two sons who work at La Canela.

"Carbon" is Spanish for "charcoal," the fuel over which the restaurant's chickens are broiled to juiciness. The skin is supple rather than crisp, but the birds burst with flavor from their 24-hour soak in a marinade of vinegar, herbs, wine, cumin, oregano and "a lot of garlic," Clary says.

Diners can order their chicken by the quarter, the half or whole; each option comes with a choice of two side dishes. That white rice, fragrant with garlic, is very good, as are fingers of crisp yuca and sticky-sweet fried plantains. The lettuce salad is ordinary in comparison, although the kitchen's attention to detail is not. Tomato slices alternate with cucumber slices, just so, atop the lettuce, which is drizzled with a creamy white dressing tweaked with dried oregano. The dips that come with the food run from yellow (garlic and mustard) and soft green (cilantro) to a shade of grass (it's kicky with jalapeno). A little of any of them makes a meal a lot more interesting.

If you've never tried beef heart, here's the place to dig in. If you already like heart, you'll relish what this kitchen does to the meat, seasoning it with the usual suspects (all together now: garlic, cumin and oregano), slicing it thinly and serving it with ringlets of marinated purple onion. The dish is one of a handful of entrees, including short ribs and tripe, that are cooked on the grill.

Welcome detail: silverware rather than plastic cutlery when you order meat. Amusing accessory: the cowbell attached to the front door, alerting staff members who might be behind the scenes during down periods. Something Subway should aspire to: shredded chicken tossed with homemade mayonnaise and packed into a fat Portuguese roll.

The short standing menu allows Clary, who makes all of Carbon's sauces, soups and sweets, time to focus on specials, which have included excellent tamales. Hope for a moist packet of mashed corn wrapped around a chile-spiced core of ground pork, egg and olives. It's a lot of comfort for five bucks.

Forgo a Coke for a Peruvian tradition. Chicha morada, made from purple corn, looks like grape juice but has a pleasant herbal appeal. (There's stronger stuff, too; oddly, however, spirits are dispensed in tiny airplane-size bottles.) Along with flan and tres leches cake for dessert, there's an unexpected chocolate cake. Super moist and sprinkled with walnuts, it's based on a recipe Clary got from her mother-in-law and is touted by the young woman behind the counter, who turns out to be the owner's niece, the effervescent Leyla Monroy. Clearly, this is a family to follow.

Please see the accompanying review of El Sabor Boliviano].