Sitting at the table inside Peru’s Chicken, a strip-center pollo a la brasa outlet in Mitchellville, Md., I’m having a debate with myself about herbs. Is it thyme that I taste on my bird, this juicy little number whose browned and blackened skin generates an almost pornographic desire? Or is it rosemary? Or maybe the minty Peruvian herb, huacatay? No, wait, it’s oregano. Definitely oregano.
My internal debate is sort of academic: I’ve already decided this bird and I are going to be lifelong friends, no matter what brand of herb perfume it wears. Don’t get me wrong: I know I’m in the infatuation stage. Right now, this chicken can do no wrong.
Meng Wang and Nestor Via Y Rada are the unlikely team behind Peru’s Chicken, a utilitarian, yam-colored space in a shopping center with a decidedly multiculti personality: Just a few steps away, you can dig into Chinese American stir-fries, Jamaica beef patties, even the red-hot wings of a certain Louisiana-based chain. The owners of this Peruvian chicken place fit right in: Wang hails from China, Via Y Rada from Peru. They combined their talents to save each other from a life of unsatisfying toil in the hospitality industry.
“There are too many Chinese restaurants now, so we were looking for another kind,” says Wang, who has a history of running Chinese-American eateries. “The [Peruvian] chicken restaurant is really popular in Maryland and Virginia.”
If Wang is the entrepreneurial muscle behind Peru’s Chicken, then Via Y Rada is the culinary spirit that animates the place. Wang found the chef working the charcoal-fueled ovens at a Sardi’s location, then learned Via Y Rada was searching for a partner to open his own pollo a la brasa joint. Business savvy, thy name is luck.
Wang and Via Y Rada opened Peru’s Chicken about two years ago, which means that I’m about two years late to the party. I ordered the signature charbroiled chicken on each of my five visits — hey, infatuation can impair my judgment, inspiring me to repeatedly drive 30-plus minutes for a dish available in my own Zip code — and each time the bird rewarded my dedication. I haven’t felt this passionately about a Peruvian charcoal chicken since I opened my first clamshell container at El Pollo Rico more than a decade ago.
Unlike so many masterminds behind Peruvian chicken, Via Y Rada doesn’t treat his recipe like a classified document. Freshness plays an essential role. The herbs he uses in the marinade — it includes thyme, rosemary and oregano — are all fresh, not dried. He throws huacatay black mint leaves into the mix, too, although they come frozen during the winter. The chef’s secret weapon, however, is an ingredient that I’ve never encountered in pollo a la brasa before, at least not knowingly. Via Y Rada pours sweet, semi-sparking moscato wine into his marinade, an Italian intruder into his Peruvian recipe.
Marinated for 24 hours in Via Y Rada’s fizzy mixture, the chicken can seemingly absorb any amount of heat and smoke without shrinking into a leathery carcass. On its own, the chicken offers more than a supermarket aisle of herbs. I detected cumin and garlic, too. The salt level can border on the obscene, but I’m okay with that. I’m no sodium prude. I even admire the chicken’s freakishly large breast meat, a good two inches thick, as succulent and smoky as its legs and thighs.
The bird barely needs any of the sauces available in tiny plastic containers, but I still enjoyed piling on the flavor with my standard double-dip, first in the aji amarillo yellow sauce and then in the jalapeno-based green sauce. Had I known Via Y Rada makes his own mayonnaise for the white sauce, I might not have treated it like spam.
Given the chef’s dedication to his craft, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn there’s another chicken on the menu just as tasty as the pollo a la brasa. Via Y Rada debones a bird before marinating the skin-on meat in a mixture that includes the mild aji panca pepper from Peru as well as more of that moscato wine. Slapped on a conventional charcoal grill — not the rotisserie that hypnotically spins behind the cutting station — the pollo parrillero has a sweeter, less smoky disposition than its famous sibling. It’s the Peruvian chicken equivalent of the Penn brothers: the easygoing singer-songwriter Michael Penn vs. the volcanic superstar Sean Penn, both hard to ignore.
Once you wander away from bird land, you begin to see where the kitchen strains. My lamb chops were bitter and mostly desiccated, as if someone forgot to marinate the bones before tossing them on the grill. The lomo saltado played down the Chinese connection of the dish, offering succulent strips of beef with red onions and tomatoes so soft and concentrated they seem to be stewed, not stir-fried. I should note: My palate didn’t care; I barreled through that semi-Chinese Peruvian plate. The ceviche mixto brought together shrimp, squid, octopus and bay scallops in a lime-heavy Peruvian preparation, though without much of the rocoto pepper bite that I enjoy.
Via Y Rada understands that sides are not filler. His fried yuca — its crispy exterior gives way to a soft and creamy interior — ranks among the finest specimens I’ve sampled. The fried plantains conceal a tiny tickle of tartness among their sweet, caramelized flavors. The black beans, so savory and well-seasoned, are totally shovel-worthy. And the cilantro rice, with its hint of acid, should be your go-to grain at every turn here.
The question I’ve had to repeatedly ask myself is this: With the wealth of Peruvian chicken outlets in the DMV, is this particular place worthy of a special trip to Mitchellville? (There’s a second location in Lanham, which I didn’t visit.) The answer was clear, yet hard for me to accept, as if bargain restaurants can never be destinations: Yes. A thousand times yes.
12106 Central Ave., Mitchellville, Md. 240-206-9145. peruschicken.com.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday
11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches, chicken and entrees, $6.99-$17.95.