El Pollo Estrella
71 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Snacks and side dishes 75 cents to $1.35. Soups and entrees $2.50 to $9.95.
Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa.
No separate nonsmoking section.
El Pollo Estrella is quintessential storefront dining.
The prices are low and the portions are big, the simple cooking produces more winners than losers, the "wait staff" often consists of a lone friendly-but-harried server, and the interior is not so much an example of decoration as it is a potpourri of things occupying the space between the front door and the kitchen.
(In this case, that's 18 tables, six ceiling fans, four gum ball machines, three menu boards, two cactus planters and two sombreros hung on a wall -- or four sombreros if you count their reflections in the mirrors on the opposite wall.)
In the last year or so, there has been a boomlet of rotisserie chicken restaurants in Northern Virginia, beginning with a handful of Peruvian-owned establishments and, recently, one run by an Ecuadorean family. Now there is El Pollo Estrella, opened seven months ago by Bolivian-born Humberto Perez.
Unlike the Peruvian places, which are limited to chicken, El Pollo Estrella offers a menu that includes a range of Bolivian specialties, plus Mexican burritos and Salvadoran pupusas. Although chicken is the featured attraction, I found other dishes more appealing.
There are no appetizers among the dozen or so listings, but there are soups -- wonderful, homey, stick-to-your-ribs meals that could be shared as a starter.
The best was sopa de quinoa, in which quinoa, a type of grain dating to the Incas, is cooked with hefty chunks of stewing beef and potatoes to a thin porridge-like consistency.
Two other good choices are sopa de mani, a milky peanut soup thick with rice flavored faintly by non-roasted peanuts and topped with french fries, and sopa de fideos, sporting pieces of chicken and beef with elbow macaroni and bits of carrots and peas.
The soups are reasonably priced at $3.95 and rotate throughout the week.
Several beef dishes are quite good, such as the colorful pique macho, in which slices of beef and chunks of hot dogs are tossed in a spicy, tangy vinaigrette with lightly sauteed fresh tomatoes, green peppers and onions. The meat is slightly chewy but flavorful, and hidden underneath are delicious french fries, which have soaked up all the juices.
For those who crave the earthy, intense fire of Tex-Mex seasoning, don't miss the bargain-priced burritos rojos ($2.50), with cubes of long-simmered chuck roast in a red sauce ablaze with hot peppers. In contrast, the mild verde, or green, version is pretty bland.
An order of beef liver covered with the ubiquitous stir fry of tomatoes, onions and bell peppers was fine, served with fresh home fries. Less successful was the stew-like lomito a la paila, consisting of a tough, thin steak topped with two hard-cooked eggs.
There are two styles of chicken, rotisserie grilled and fried. Although both are marinated in wine and spices, the fried version is much more flavorful, enhanced by rosemary, salt and lemon juice.
As for the beverages, my favorite is the refreshing, cinnamony horchata, made from powdered nuts and grains mixed with milk. Or try the tamarindo, reminiscent of sweetened iced tea. Beer, including the Bolivian Taquina or Salvadoran Pilsener, is also available.
Although there are plans to add desserts to the menu, the only choices at the moment are the ice cream bars and cones in the Good Humor freezer near the rear counter. A better sweet finish, however, is the fried plantains, listed as a side dish.