No matter how many times you look under a wing, or investigate the backside of your breast meat, you won’t find them at Chicken + Whiskey: The juicy clumps of herbs and spice that hide in the small joints of birds at most pollo a la brasa outlets are nowhere to be found here. The only blemishes found on these specimens are the browned and bronzed sections of skin produced in the kitchen’s charcoal ovens.
Your first instinct is to think that Enrique Limardo, the magnificent chef behind Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, has gone minimalist with Peruvian chicken. Your first bite won’t immediately change your mind: The breast meat is juicy beyond all expectation but not flaccid-juicy the way overbrined chicken can be. There are suggestions of cumin and garlic, practically dreamlike in their fleetingness and formlessness. The bird is fundamentally savory, as if it were engineered that way, like MSG in poultry form.
It was only after talking to Limardo that I learned his secret. He doesn’t take herbs, spices and other aromatics and pulverize them into a paste to slather onto his birds. Instead, he creates a paste of aji amarillos — the fruity hot peppers central to Peruvian cooking — and adds it to a brine along with garlic, rosemary, raw sugar cane, vinegar, cumin, garlic, dark beer and no doubt other flavoring agents. His chickens luxuriate in this saltwater bath for at least 12 hours, and sometimes as long as 24.
“It’s a very powerful brine,” Limardo explains. “For me, it’s better to put everything in the brine so everything goes into the meat.”
The technique explains the chicken’s sleek appearance, free of the seasoning clusters that cling like barnacles to the pollo a la brasa found in the Washington suburbs. For a chef who has transformed Venezuelan cooking into grand, impressionistic, Twombly-like masterworks, it should come as no surprise that Limardo has found a way to alter the complexion of Peruvian chicken without shattering its inherent deliciousness.
Yet Chicken + Whiskey doesn’t come across as a twee interpretation of a strip-center pollo a la brasa shop, even though it incorporates some of the very elements you’d expect of a cheffy charcoal-chicken joint, including a speakeasy with dozens of whiskeys available in two-ounce pours. The front space, more or less, mimics the basic layout of its suburban counterparts: narrow, counter-focused, bright as an interrogation room. The place has the pulse of Latin American grill, even if it has the budget of the Star Restaurant Group. (Although I do wish the owners had invested in a few tables, which facilitate conversation better than the uncomfortable counter seats.)
The 14th Street shop casts a wider net than your standard-issue Peruvian chicken outlet. Credit Limardo for Chicken + Whiskey’s scope. The chef borrows a few flavors and dishes from his Venezuelan homeland. Some are easy to spot (the reina de chicharron), others are next to impossible to detect (the raw cane sugar added to the chicken brine to help caramelize the skin). But either way, the additions are not a stretch: Venezuela has a long tradition of rotisserie chicken, Limardo says, though likely nicked from Peru.
In fact, one reason Limardo decided to join the Chicken + Whiskey team was because, back in his mother country, the locals will knock back a finger or two of blended Scotch whisky (yes, no “e” when the bottles come from Scotland) with their rotisserie birds. The chef urged the brass at Star to make the pairing more explicit with their project, but he lost the argument. As such, no chicken shall pass through the walk-in cooler door that leads to the whiskey room.
“There are going to be bones everywhere,” Limardo says, by way of explanation.
You enter a whole different world in the back bar, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” but in reverse. You move from the sunny, Technicolor environs of the chicken shop to the dark, flickering domain of small-batch hooch and bittersweet Boulevardiers. It’s easy to get drunk on this space — and in this space, with its generous stock of whiskies. I’d suggest a pour of Navazos Palazzi Spanish Malt Whisky, aged in Palo Cortado sherry casks, a smooth sip with a hint of candied cherry. Knock it back with a lager, and you may find yourself at peak tipsiness, happy but not blotto.
Back in the fluorescent side of the building, the options are more limited. You can’t go wrong with Limardo’s chicken, which an employee will hack up to your desired portion size and meat preference. Would I like crispier skin? Yes, but that’s a matter of timing: You want birds fresh from the oven, not held until the skin sags. Do I miss those little explosions of spice found on standard Peruvian birds out in the ’burbs? I confess I do. But I adore (and respect) Chicken + Whiskey’s take on hot sauce, which ditches minced jalapeños for Peruvian rocoto peppers, making for a more complex and blistering bite.
Limardo puts chicken to use in other dishes. The tiritas de pollo are thick, fried sticks of cassava-breaded breast meat, better when dipped in the rocoto hot sauce than the accompanying Chicken + Whiskey barbecue sauce, a condiment that reeks of cloves. The pollo frito, a cassava-breaded patty slipped into a brioche bun with aji amarillo mayo and other garnishes, is the far superior way to enjoy white meat. The chef even stuffs charcoal chicken and an avocado spread into a Venezuelan arepa rarely found in these parts: a pocket made out of deep-fried pork crackling. The dish is so wrong — and so good.
True to its approach, Chicken + Whiskey draws inspiration from a wide range of sources for its sides. With its sofrito base, the black beans are sweet, rich and rewarding. The basmati-rice-based arroz chaufa gets its kick from soy sauce and rice vinegar, a nod to the Chinese ingredients in Peruvian chifa cuisine. Even the yuca fries here get a dusting of Tajin, the invigorating seasoning with its roots in Mexican cooking.
Now . . . if only I could have my chicken and sides with a shot of whiskey. Limardo says that may happen with the next Chicken + Whiskey, still in the planning stages.
1738 14th St. NW, 202-667-2456, chickenandwhiskey.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.50 to $5.99 for sides; $7.99 to $21.99 for chicken strips, sandwiches and chicken.