Just opened in January, the Sardi’s outlet in Takoma Park emits the slick vibe of a Chipotle or some other fastidious fast- casual operation, designed to attract customers who typically wouldn’t set foot in a pollo a la brasa shop with grit under its nails.
The menus above the charcoal ovens are not the removable-letter-board variety found in Depression-era cafeterias packed with hollow-eyed diners, but glowing electric monoliths that detail the extensive options available. Several flat-screen televisions are affixed to walls illustrated with the names of Peruvian dishes, or decorated with juicy, large-scale images of the plates that await at the spotless granite counter.
Fair or not, the sheer savvy of this Sardi’s location (one of seven in the D.C. area) raises that tired, often misbegotten question of authenticity: Can a pollo a la brasa joint this well packaged offer a true taste of Peru, or is it making concessions to attract a wider audience?
Before I offer my thoughts, allow me to add one more complication: Peruvians did not start the Sardi’s chain. Its history can be traced to a District carryout founded by a Greek immigrant. Sardi’s is a clever truncation of the founder’s full name: Emanuel “Mike” Sardelis.
“Many Peruvians, the first thing they say is, ‘What does a Greek know about Peruvian chicken?’ ” says Phil G. Sardelis, co-founder of the chicken chain and nephew to Mike Sardelis.
When Mike’s son (named Phil E. Sardelis) took over the business and shifted the focus to catering, one of his most popular items was pollo a la brasa, which he bought from a local vendor. He was buying so many birds, in fact, that the two Phils decided to open a pollo a la brasa restaurant in 2008, in part to supply the catering company. They hired a Peruvian chef, a veteran of Pardos Chicken in Lima, and obsessively went about developing their own charcoal chicken.
“Not being Peruvian helps me more,” argues Phil G. “I don’t want to let [Peruvians] down. I’m always striving for that perfection.”
Perfection is a cruel taskmaster, never satisfied and always critical: I wouldn’t place that kind of expectation on a business with as many moving parts as a restaurant, even one with as much experience as Sardi’s. But whenever a successful restaurant starts migrating into multi-unit territory (think Five Guys, Taylor Gourmet and Sweetgreen), I begin to wonder whether they have the moxie and management skills necessary to maintain consistency across all stores.
After numerous visits to the Takoma Park location, I feel confident in saying that this Sardi’s outlet produces some of the best Peruvian chicken around — and some of the most inconsistent.
My best bird was my first: It was a quarter section of dark meat, its skin so brown and crisp that my mouth watered before I took a bite. (If Sardi’s has perfected anything, it might be that crispy skin, a secret I wish it would share with competitors.) The bird’s smokiness was prominent but not dominant, its charred aroma mixing with the many other flavors buried in the skin and flesh. In my head, Sardi’s was fast climbing my Top 5 list of pollo a la brasa outlets.
Until I ordered my next bird, a half chicken with both white and dark meat. It had all the flavor of a retired fighting rooster, its white meat dry and virtually tasteless. If I spent five minutes trying to decode my first bird’s marinade — Garlic? Black pepper? An herbal note? — I spent an equal amount of time wondering where all the flavor went with this chicken.
My third bird, another half chicken, split the difference: The white meat was sometimes moist and sometimes dry, but the delicate balance of flavors had returned. And yet no matter the quality of my birds, I could always retreat to the relative safety of Sardi’s three (yes, three) dipping sauces, which revive even the most lifeless chicken. First among equals is the salsa verde, a vibrant concoction infused with huacatay, the minty Andean herb that mellows the sauce’s molten jalapeno heat. It’s the most complex sauce I’ve sampled at a pollo a la brasa shop.
The sides at Sardi’s don’t exhibit much ambition. The thick-cut fries are an ideal delivery system for Sardi’s creamy aji amarillo sauce, but the only true star is the arroz chaufa, or Peruvian fried rice, which I’m inclined to label Peruvian dirty rice because of the morsels of smoky chicken buried in its grains.
True to its catering roots, Sardi’s offers more than charcoal chicken or Peruvian staples. Cheesesteaks, gyros and chicken souvlaki make appearances, too; to my shock, I preferred the good and greasy (if untraditional) cheesesteak over the “world famous” souvlaki, which was essentially skewers of dry white meat served with a tzatziki sauce that smacked of sour cream.
Among the Peruvian standards, I’d run with the fresh, multifaceted seviche mixto (with its tiger’s milk on the side to control acid levels) or the lomo saltado, the fusion stir-fry dish that Sardi’s does (dare I say it?) to perfection. Or try the chopped chicken sandwich, which tucks pieces of smoky rotisserie bird in a brioche roll with roma tomatoes, romaine and provolone. If this simple, deeply satisfying sandwich is how Sardi’s entices the timid to take a chance on Peruvian chicken, then allow me to say: Keep stamping out those new locations, please.
1159 University Blvd. East, Takoma Park. 301-755-5777. www.sardischicken.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Nearest Metro Station: Takoma, about 2.2 miles from the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $6.95-$16.95.