Pollerías, fast food restaurants serving Peruvian roast chicken, are the go-to place for Peruvian families when they eat out. Pollo a la Brasa, the centerpiece dish at pollerías, consists of marinated whole chickens slow-cooking on rotating spits. Pollo a la Brasa used to be a delicacy for the rich, but a Swiss man named Roger Schuler invented a way to scale the process up and cook multiple chickens at the same time. Now, you can find a pollería at just about every corner in Peru.
What Makes a Good Pollo a la Brasa
Pollo a la Brasa is a relatively simple dish in terms of the ingredients. First, the quality and the source of the chicken obviously matters. There’s a secret marinade that varies from place to place, but the biggest factors under the control of the pollero is time and temperature. Controlling the dynamic between these two factors is what determines the texture of the chicken.
A good pollo a la brasa has a crispy skin and beautiful fall apart texture. It is a juicy but not too greasy. The spices of the marinade and the flavor of the chicken itself permeates the whole chicken.
Good ají and fries help accentuate the whole experience. I sometimes remember a pollería by its ají.
A typical pollería has a simple set-up. Neighborhood pollerías are often small enough that you can see all of the tables and the whole kitchen as you walk in. At these pollerías, you typically order at the counter. Larger pollerías have two floors or a large room with more tables in the back. You just sit down and someone will come to take your order.
The focal point of a pollería is a rack of whole chicken spinning over coals. Sometimes the rack is located in viewing distance of the street, enticing people to come in. Oftentimes, 90% of the “kitchen” is taken up by rack which makes since because it’s the primary product.
Pollerías are about the least intimidating kind of restaurant possible. You can just point and you’ll end up with delicious chicken. Even so, here are some tips on how to enjoy the pollería experience:
- Know your pollería-Pollerías vary incredibly in their quality. If possible, you should go to a pollería that locals recommend. To maintain quality, pollerías depend on economies of scale and on selling chickens quickly. Thus, a pollería that is lonely during peak times is one to be avoided.
- How to order-You can order pollo a la brasa in different sizes:
- 1/8 (un octavo)
- 1/4 chicken (un cuarto)
- 1/2 chicken (un medio pollo)
- 1 whole chicken (un pollo entiro)
- Impossible to go hungry-The size of the chicken varies a lot between pollerías, but I find that 1/4 (cuarto) chicken is more than enough for most appetites. Pollo a la brasa also typically comes with a heap of french fries (papa fritas).
- Family Style-A pollería is best enjoyed family-style, dividing a whole chicken between 3-5 people. You can then order one or two appetizers or side dishes.
- Load up on veggies-An order of pollo a la brasa typically comes with a trip to the salad bar. I find that the salad bar is another way to gauge the overall quality of the establishment. If the veggies are old and wilted, you may want to choose a different location. A good salad bar actually can be one of the best opportunities to load up on veggies while in Peru (beets, peas, lettuce, and of course, potatoes).
- Try the sauces-the sauces or ají is one the best part of the pollería experience for me:
- Green sauce-Hucatay, cilantro, and/or parsley
- Yellow sauce-Ají amarillo and cream sauce
- Mayonaise-Oftentimes it’s homemade, a bit thinner, and tangier than the kind found in stores
- Ketchup and mustard-Please don’t use the ketchup for the chicken
- Try other menu items:
- Aguadito-sometimes you get this cilantro chicken soup, as a starter, for free. If not, it is usually on the menu as a side.
- Salchipapas deserve their own post but they are basically french fries and sausages pan-fried together. Sometimes, an egg, melted cheese, or ají amarillo cream added to the mixture.
- Choripapas are a variant of salchipapas with chorizo instead of sausage
- Anticuchos-Oftentimes, you can find another Peruvian favorite, anticuchos, at pollerías. I prefer to go a place dedicated to only anticuchos, but it’s not that far of a stretch for a pollería to also make good anticuchos.
- Parrilla plates-You’ll often also find mixed grilled plates with various types of meats at pollerías.
- Beverage of choice-Typical beverages at a pollería include:
- Chicha Morada-this purple corn punch is my pairing of choice
- Inka Kola-I prefer drinking this super-sweet, bubble-gum flavored yellow soda anticuchos. Somehow, it works better.
- Beer-Cusqueña (Dorada) pairs well with chicken
- Takeout-Most Peruvian food needs to be eaten fresh, on the spot. Pollo a la brasa, however, is one of the best food to order for takeout or delivery. Pollo a la brasa is still delicious the next day!
Peruvian Chicken is Taking Over the World
The whole world is getting acquainted with the diverse flavors of Peruvian cuisine, making way for specific sub-genres of Peruvian cuisines to emerge on the world scene. Límon in San Francisco, Emanuel in London, and Pio Pio in New York are some of the most popular restaurants that serve Pollo a la Brasa worldwide. Pollo a la Brasa has recently spread to Asia as well.
Perhaps the reason that Pollo a la Brasa is such a successful export is that it has distinct Peruvian flavor but yet almost every culture can related to roast chicken. Whatever the reason, soon, you won’t have to go far enjoy the textures and flavors of Pollo a la Brasa in your city.