Some years ago while researching a story on new Peruvian cuisine, I spent a couple of days with Johnny Schuler, the celebrated son of the man who helped invent pollo a la brasa. Schuler’s father was a Swiss native who worked for the U.S. government in Bolivia during World War II before relocating to Peru and starting a chicken farm.
Roger Schuler’s farm was a dying venture, Johnny told me, until his dad and a fellow Swiss expat invented the six-spit rotisserie, which would soon become an engine of economic wealth for pollerias throughout the Americas, starting with the Schuler family in 1950. The machine’s brilliance was its capacity and its technique: It could cook a couple dozen chickens, or more, over a bed of smoldering charcoal, transforming young birds into these bronzed and smoky morsels, irresistible in every way.
Schuler’s invention was designed to produce birds fast, hot and cheap. He could offer diners all the chicken they desired for a mere five soles (about $1.50 today). As ingenious as the rotisserie was, though, it doomed Peruvian chicken to the budget-eats category, which in turn meant that pollo a la brasa joints in the United States would, with some exceptions, of course, thrive in the suburbs where the rents were affordable and the customer base plentiful. Washington was no different. Our finest Peruvian chickens have historically been found in Wheaton, Falls Church and other corridors far from the city center.
But as dining habits have shifted — millennials having demonstrated a taste for cheaper and more international foods — you may have noticed a small swell of pollerias in the District proper, and not just the kind that cater to high-rise condo-dwellers who want a two-finger pour of small-batch whiskey with their charcoal chicken. There are now enough outlets for genuine Peruvian chicken in Washington to merit a qualitative roundup.
If you skipped ahead to the list already, you may have noticed that I excluded a pollo a la brasa shop that I had previously endorsed. That was on purpose. Not because Chicken + Whiskey is unworthy of a nod (it is, even if I found my last bird there too flaccid, as if it were brined to the point of excess water retention), but because its aims are loftier — and its prices higher — than the more modest operations on this list. So don’t @me over its exclusion, okay?
5. Mister Rotisserie (3501 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-723-1500). This relative newcomer to the Park View neighborhood still has the no-frills feel of a fixer-upper: barren tile floor, mostly unadorned walls and chairs that look like they were borrowed from a nearby banquet room. But you’ll quickly forget about your surroundings once you tear into the chicken pulled from the corner rotisserie. Mildly smoky, the bird has a pushy, but not overbearing, cumin persona. When dunked into the accompanying white sauce, all thick and garlicky, this bird has predatory instincts, fierce in its assault. Don’t miss the black beans here, as good as any in Washington.
4. Super Pollo (1327 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-955-7920). Visitors to the small chain’s Northern Virginia locations know it has a split personality: part Peruvian, part Pakistani, all halal. The chicken at the new Dupont Circle location is a smoker’s delight. Every specimen that lands on your plate is cloaked in wood smoke. You can enjoy your bird with the shop’s standard-issue yellow and green dipping sauces, or you can step up to the housemade habanero sauce, a condiment that will make you wonder if the fruit you taste is real or just a hallucination from the extreme pepper heat.
3. La Granja de Oro (1832 Columbia Rd. NW; 202-232-8888). The name of this Adams Morgan mainstay (“granja de oro” translates into “gold farm”) is a riff on Roger Schuler’s pioneering pollo a la brasa business called Granja Azul, or “blue farm,” which still operates in Lima. Like the birds once cooked by Schuler, the chicken here has a lean and clean profile, lighter on cumin and garlic than many of its peers. The chicken pairs exquisitely with the house-made white sauce, cut with a generous amount of vinegar for a welcoming slap of acid. The fried yucca — crispy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside — is the standard by which others are judged.
2. Huacatay Peruvian Chicken (2314 Fourth St. NE; 202-795-9940). Opened less than two years ago, Huacatay boasts the most attractive dining room of any neighborhood charcoal-chicken shop. One wall is exposed brick, another is drywall the color of morning fog. Both are covered in colorful framed photos of everyday Peruvian life. The chicken is pulled from the oven with a layer of dark char, which can make for some crispy, if borderline acrid, skin. Huacatay knows the beauty of a balanced bird: The smoke and the salt and the spice all carry equal loads. This shop could have earned the top spot if it had produced better, and more consistent, sides.
1. Crisp and Juicy (4533 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-966-1222). This beloved local chain will mark its 30th anniversary next year. Most of its locations are comfortably situated in the ’burbs, but co-founder Jorge Perez opened this D.C. branch with partner Alfredo Izurieta a decade ago. After so many years in the business, their charcoal-chicken game is strong. Smoky, salty, herbal and succulent, the birds almost live up to the name out front. I say almost, because crispiness can be a fleeting thing with pollo a la brasa. Allow a fully cooked chicken to linger under a heat lamp, or sit too long in a holding unit, and its skin is bound to turn flaccid. But if you hit Crisp and Juicy shortly after they’ve pulled birds from the oven, you’re likely to encounter a Peruvian chicken that borders on the ideal.