Brothers Juan and Fernando Sanchez, owners of the two District Rico locations in, well, the District, had reliable mentors when they decided to get into the Peruvian chicken business: Their parents have been selling pollo a la brasa in the greater D.C. area since the late 1990s, and before that, their grandmother had a shop in Lima.
By Juan’s accounting, the siblings and their parents own or co-own 11 shops in the Washington-Baltimore region, which makes the Sanchez family one of the leading producers of Peruvian chicken in the DMV. (The list doesn’t even include outlets owned by Juan and Fernando’s uncle.) So why isn’t the family name or brand as recognizable as, say, Sardi’s, El Pollo Rico or Crisp and Juicy?
The answer is probably twofold. First, the family doesn’t sell chicken under a single unifying name but instead trades under multiple brands, including Chicken Rico, District Rico, Poyoteca and Super Chicken, each with different ownership groups. But the second and perhaps more telling reason is the family just isn’t that interested in self-promotion, which is either a groundbreaking concept in the age of look-at-me influencers or a real missed opportunity. I mean, the clan’s social media game is not strong, a startling situation given that Peruvian chicken, all charred and glistening, is practically made to activate the saliva glands on the ’Gram.
But Juan tells me the family is more grass-roots and hands-on. They trust word-of-mouth advertising over anything generated via the vagaries of social media algorithms. They, in short, rely on customers to brag about their Peruvian chicken, which the family will tell you differs from many others in one important way: The recipe actually has its roots in Peru, where it was created by Juan and Fernando’s grandmother, Dora Giordano, who ran her own pollo a la brasa shop, Las Tinajas in Lima, for years. This chicken has history.
“I have not touched that recipe,” Juan tells me. “That’s a sacred document.”
As with most family recipes, let alone sacred documents, the Sanchez brothers are loath to reveal its secrets. But here’s what I know: The chickens are dry-brined for 24 hours in the walk-in, with a seasoning mixture that includes fragrant amounts of sweet, earthy cumin. From there, the whole birds are skewered and placed into rotisserie ovens that smolder with natural wood charcoal, generating enough heat to cook the poultry in about an hour.
Here’s what else I know: When fresh from the oven, this chicken has few peers. One afternoon, I had stopped at the Home Depot off Rhode Island Avenue NE to pick up some grill supplies. I was contemplating lunch while loading my car. That’s when I spotted District Rico’s newest location, in a strip center right next door to Popeyes, as if the landlords were conducting an experiment to find out if Washington’s palate leans toward Louisiana or Peru.
Personally, I’ll pick smoke over oil nine times out of 10 when it comes to cooking chicken. (Okay, maybe closer to seven times out of 10, but still.) I ordered a quarter chicken, dark meat, which was cheaper than its white counterpart, and paired the leg and thigh with chicken fried rice. It was chicken two ways, takeout style: one smoky, juicy and aromatic, dunked in those iconic containers of yellow and green sauces; the other a kind of Peruvian dirty rice, with pieces of smoky bird accented with soy sauce and scallions. If I’ve eaten better for less than 11 bucks, I can’t remember when.
Like Sardi’s, District Rico stretches the definition of a pollo a la brasa shop to include not only other Peruvian staples (a saucy version of lomo saltado with three varieties of onion — red, white and spring — stirred into the succulent beef and soggy fries) but also salads, burritos and subs that incorporate the rotisserie chicken. If District Rico wanted to open a shop dedicated just to salads featuring its star bird — like a Peruvian Chopt, where a meat cleaver replaces the mezzaluna — I’d be all in. The chicken heightens the experience of the brothers’ Inca salad, providing elements of smoke and spice to an otherwise standard-issue bowl. Same goes for the Mission-style burrito, in which the pollo a la brasa takes the dish to levels that Chipotle could never touch.
The District Rico location on H Street NW — it started life as Chicken Rico, but the guys decided to rename it to avoid confusion with El Pollo Rico — has a hip, distressed-wood vibe that separates it from its more utilitarian counterpart in Brentwood. At lunch, the H Street spot becomes a melting pot, attracting a mix of office drones, construction workers and students from nearby Gonzaga College High School. “We look like the Gonzaga cafeteria sometimes,” Juan tells me.
I think this says something important about how quickly Peruvian chicken has become assimilated into everyday life in Washington — without losing its essential character. It hasn’t even been 25 years since the brothers’ parents, Mirian Giordano and Fernando Sanchez Sr., opened their first Super Chicken in 1999 in Falls Church, where they often catered to their own community. In the days before DoorDash, the elder Sanchez or an employee would serve as delivery drivers, with nothing more than a map to guide them. “They’d get lost more times than not,” Juan tells me.
As the family’s audience has expanded, so has its idea of a pollo a la brasa shop. You can, for instance, get sides such as Brussels sprouts, chickpeas, and spinach and potatoes (watery but delicious) instead of yuca fries, black beans or plantains, though, frankly, I prefer sticking with the classics. You can also order skewers in which the chicken is grilled and charred, not smoked over charcoal. The kebabs come drizzled with a garlic-heavy chimichurri sauce, and they are tasty, but the real treat is buried under those grilled nuggets in their takeout container: The rice, saturated with meat drippings and sauce, is good enough to make you forget all about Peruvian chicken.
91 H St. NW, 202-842-5007, and 1060 Brentwood Rd. NE, 202-516-4846; districtrico.com.
Hours: H Street location: 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Brentwood location: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: H Street: Union Station, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant. Brentwood: Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3.50 to $54.99 for all items on the menu, including family meals.