The $20 Diner visits Chicken Rico in Langley Park


Chicken Rico is part of a small Maryland chain of Peruvian pollo restaurants. Its rotisserie chicken recipe can be traced back to Peru, where co-owner Mirian Giordano-Sanchez's mother ran a pollo a la brasa restaurant for decades. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
November 14, 2013

If I could neatly summarize the reading public’s reaction to my attempt this summer to find Washington’s best pollo a la brasa, I’d condense it to this: It was a flame-a-thon.

Lesson learned. This piece of property in Weekend may be valuable, but it doesn’t have the acreage for a comprehensive (or semi-comprehensive) roundup of restaurants, particularly when the main dish in question generates the kind of tribal affiliations that could easily lead to civil war in lesser countries. Peruvian chicken is such a dish.

Many of you dedicated Jacksonian diners (do I need to explain the reference to regular readers of this space?) provided me with tips — along with insults — on other rotisseries to stake out. I had already investigated some and found them wanting. Others were still uncharted waters for me.

Either way, the passion for your preferred pollo outlets ran so deep that I thought it would behoove me to spend more time with each. This way, I figured, one or two pollo a la brasa joints might gradually rise to the top after a year or two of visiting spots in the region.

So let’s get to it. First up: Chicken Rico in Langley Park, which reader Harvey Kincaid recommended. “I knew I had the right place when on my second visit in five days, there was a line of Hispanic patrons to the door,” he wrote. They were all waiting, he noted, for chickens fresh from the charcoal ovens.

There was no line the first time I visited Chicken Rico, which is sandwiched between Teriyaki Express and the Dollar City & More store on the ground floor of a two-story strip mall. As Harvey pointed out, Rico caters mostly to Latinos, who put their lives at risk every time they cross the oblivious, multi-lane traffic on University Boulevard to reach this chicken shack. The decor consists of tables, chairs, fabric-based artwork of Peruvian culture and a few flatscreen televisions on which to follow soccer matches, which can quickly transform the place into a Peruvian sports bar.

With no line to greet me (or to ensure that the birds were hot from the oven), I thought I’d press the issue anyway. I asked the man quartering the chickens how fresh the specimens in the holding unit were. Without saying much, he sized me up as a cold, hard pollo a la brasa snob. Then he had me wait a good 10 minutes for a fresh chicken off the rotisserie. I tipped him well.

The half-chicken on my plate was the color of dark caramel, with blisters of black, mouthwatering char. The skin, although not as crisp as you might expect, ferried hints of cumin, garlic, salt, wood smoke and, to my palate, herbs. When I challenged Rico co-owner Mirian Giordano-Sanchez to a game of “What Ingredients Are in Your Secret Peruvian Chicken Recipe,” she disabused me of the idea that the marinade included herbs. I’m holding tight to my skepticism until I see the marinade prepared.

Then again, Giordano-Sanchez should know the recipe like a favorite poem. It comes from her mother, who concocted the thing decades ago when she launched Las Tinajas in Lima in the 1970s. The recipe has been re-created at all of Giordano-Sanchez and husband Fernando Sanchez’s pollo a la brasa outlets, which include not only a second Chicken Rico in Baltimore, but also four operations branded under such names as Super Pollo and Super Chicken. Call it expanding the family brand, Peruvian-style.

But Giordano-Sanchez will be the first to tell you that a recipe alone does not guarantee consistency, and as someone who has dined at half of her restaurants, I can vouch for that. The Chicken Rico location in Langley Park serves up the finest birds among the three spots I’ve visited in the couple’s mini-pollo empire (which will expand by two with Rico outlets in Baltimore and Waldorf next year). In the past month, I’ve devoured chicken at the Langley location four times, and the only issue that recurs is the oven watchman’s stubborn tendency to overcook the breast meat, sometimes rendering it dry and stringy. Aside from that, I could dunk smoky pieces of Rico chicken into the shop’s fresh, mildly spicy sauce until my veins run green with cilantro.

The sides vary from standard issue (the ubiquitous liquidy coleslaw, more sweet than tangy) to sensational (the rice and beans, both cooked to a state of near decomposition, so soft and salty). The mushy, undercooked steak fries elicit little excitement, and the fried yucca runs hot and cold, literally (they’re delicious when fresh and warm; chewy starch sticks when not).

Although the rotisserie birds are the draw, Chicken Rico prepares other dishes worthy of your attention. Prime among them are the Peruvian-style anticuchos de corazon, or beef hearts, which are thinly sliced, marinated and grilled to a chewy, garlicky edge. If these skewers were renamed something like, ahem, “beef tenders,” they’d be the next pork belly, and beef companies could start selling more hearts for human consumption than for canine consumption. But I digress.

Where was I? Oh, yes, chicken. You know what’s almost as good here as the charcoal chicken chopped into your preferred portion? It’s the pollo a la plancha, a flattened half-bird (bones and all) griddled into a slightly crispy, slightly hardened slab that’s surprisingly moist at its core. It tastes sort of like rotisserie chicken cooked under a very hot and very large rock.

Chicken Rico

1425 University Blvd., Langley Park.
301-434-2770.

Nearest Metro: Prince George’s Plaza, with a 2.5-mile trip to the restaurant.

Hours: 10 a.m. to
9:30 p.m.

Prices: Entrees, $6.50-$12.95.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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