Peruvian chicken: The $20 Diner hunts for the perfect version

(Amanda Voisard/ For The Washington Post ) - Charcoal broiled chicken at El Pollo Rico in Arlington.

(Amanda Voisard/ For The Washington Post ) - Charcoal broiled chicken at El Pollo Rico in Arlington.

Earlier this summer, when I first started casing Peruvian chicken outlets, my goal was straightforward: I wanted to revisit a few of the more popular pollo a la brasa spots to decide if I still considered El Pollo Rico in Wheaton the best.

At some point, however, my mission took a turn toward the obsessive. I arbitrarily decided that somewhere out there, perhaps in a strip center in a Latino-heavy exurb rarely frequented by big-city folks, the perfect Peruvian chicken was just waiting to be discovered. I even developed rules. I would not waste time with restaurants that didn’t specialize in charcoal chicken. I quickly learned that at places such as Senor Chicken in Langley Park, where you can order a gyro or steak-and-cheese sandwich if pollo a la brasa doesn’t appeal, your bird can sport a wing hardened into something your dog might use as a chew toy.

So I limited myself to places where the rotisseries are always spinning, a reminder that turnover is key to good Peruvian chicken. Like a prisoner wasting away in solitary confinement, a freshly grilled chicken held too long in a warming unit can turn mean and ugly. The skin starts to sag. The flesh loses moisture. The marinade can petrify into a molar-cracking texture. Fewer dishes are more disappointing than a soft, flabby, room-temperature Peruvian chicken, even when you’re shelling out less than $10 for a quarter bird and two sides (which was the standard order I placed at every spot).

Sometimes a polleria would surprise me with a trussed-up bird pulled from a holding unit. The quarter section of dark meat at Super Chicken in Falls Church (422 S. Washington St., 703-538-5550) was juicy to the bone, even if its skin was soggy. The spices were applied unevenly, which meant some bites smacked of cumin, while others barely contain a whiff of it. Overall, a solid B grade.

Over at Super Pollo in Arlington (5011 Wilson Blvd., 703-351-7666), I should have brought my own syringe of brine to inject into the quarter chicken, which was stringy and dry. Some of the thigh meat struck me as indistinguishable from baked chicken. The bird, however, was generally smokier than the one at Super Chicken. Grade: C-.

One of the more notable birds can be found at El Pollo Sabroso in Silver Spring (8482 Piney Branch Rd., 301-565-0438), a tiny strip-center operation that sells charcoal chicken that reminds me of the ones they hawk in Lima. The dark meat did not boast a baroque bouquet of herbs and spices. The flavors were leaner, with a light application of salt. The smoke was also muted, except on the limp skin, where you could practically taste the ash from the charcoal. Grade: B-.

Just up the road from Sabroso, you’ll find a flock of Peruvian birds in Wheaton. I can’t really recommend the specimens at Sarita’s Chicken and Restaurant for the same reason I can’t recommend those at Senor Chicken: The bone-dry white meat tasted as if it were left over from yesterday’s birds. But just down the sidewalk at the Korean-owned El Pollo Kiki Riki (2533 Ennalls Ave., 301-942-0352) is a much better option: My moist bird balanced smoke, salt, herbs and spices. It would have been even better had the chicken remained on the rotisserie a few minutes longer. Grade: B.

You can’t talk about pollo a la brasa in Wheaton without mentioning El Pollo Rico (2517 University Blvd., 301-942-4419), the gold standard in the area. My last bird there was a mixed bag: Some parts were dry and almost flavorless, other parts nearly perfect. The fries, however, set a whole new standard. Yes, they were the classic, thick-cut steak fries, but these were crispy, as if sliced in-house and double-fried, then sprinkled with large crystals of salt. For once, I wanted to devour every fry at a Peruvian chicken joint. Grade: B.

Depending on whom you talk to within the Solano family, the Pollo Rico in Wheaton is either a completely separate operation from the one in Arlington or exactly the same. Two things I know for sure: Different members of the family own each location, and the Arlington outlet (932 N. Kenmore St., 703-522-3220) seems more authentically Latin American judging by the atmosphere of the restaurant, which feels as if it were airlifted from Cuzco.

Neither the menu nor the chicken are the same in Arlington. The side options are more limited at the Virginia outlet, and the Arlington crew doesn’t prepare its fries with the same, ahem, crisp attention to detail as the team in Wheaton. My bird in Arlington was also covered with so much char that you might have mistaken the beast for blackened chicken. It’s a fine line between smokiness and bitterness, and this bird crossed it: Its acrid quality overwhelmed the more subtle flavors of the marinade. Grade: C.

After all of these birds, you might wonder whether I ever found the perfect one. The answer is no. I ate good Peruvian chicken that sometimes bordered on great, and I ate mediocre Peruvian chicken that sometimes bordered on inedible. Not once did I bite into something that struck me as the epitome of pollo a la brasa.

I did start fantasizing, however, about building the perfect Peruvian bird. I’d start with the herby marinade from Kiki Riki, combine it with the juiciness of the Super Chicken bird and then add a fraction of the smoke perfume from the Pollo Rico in Arlington. As for good, hot and crispy skin? Well, I’m still searching for a place that reliably supplies that.

 
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