Come for the Peruvian-style chicken, stay for the less-common but also well-prepared Peruvian dishes
You don't have to be much of a linguist to figure out what El Pollo Perucho means in Spanish. And you shouldn't have to strain your brain much to figure out that duly celebrated, charcoal-broiled Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken is El Pollo Perucho's specialty. But the West Side restaurant offers other Peruvian comfort foods that are worth trying, too — even if you pop in on an off-day when the small, hardworking staff is facing atypical challenges.
I visited on such an occasion recently. On the heels of previous meals that had me looking forward to sampling more, I was told by my server — the husband of the head chef — that several items I'd come in for were unavailable because his wife was ill. Although I encountered a rather long wait before receiving my food that day in the semi-crowded and short-handed eatery, even my “plan B” dishes were delicious when they arrived.
El Pollo Perucho is a little, no-frills operation in a strip mall, but there are worse places to kill time in than this eminently tidy site with an upbeat cumbia soundtrack, plus bright orange and lemon yellow walls adorned with ornate metal plates and pictures of Machu Picchu. Your best clock-ignoring strategy is to peruse the shelves of Peruvian groceries for sale in what amounts to a micro bodega (dried purple corn cobs, anyone?).
You should also order the uncommon Causa de Pollo ($5.49) because the nifty appetizer comes out relatively quickly and tastes even better than it looks — and it resembles a giant Hostess cupcake. But the lemon-kissed “cake” is made from soothing mashed potatoes, the filling is a tangy shredded-chicken salad with peas and carrots, and the decorations on top are mayonnaise squiggles and boiled-egg slices.
Cutting to the chase, the headlining chicken (Pollo a la Brasa) is worth the wait. Its dark, blistered skin is fragrant with a lively herb-and-spice blend that includes huacatay, a minty Peruvian favorite (huacatay also lends distinction to the creamy and alluring all-purpose yellow house hot sauce). These flavors seep into the lightly smoky, tender and mostly juicy meat beneath. You can purchase the bird alone ($8.50 for a half, $16 for a whole chicken) or with two sides ($14 with a half, $25 with a whole bird).
You want fried plantains with that — preferably the sweet maduros, which arrive with crinkly exteriors. I'm also a big fan of the creamy pinto beans seasoned with garlic and ham. And both the aromatic cilantro rice and the yellow rice with peas and carrots are good choices. The fried yucas are fine, but mine would've benefited from more time in the fryer. The Papas a la Huancaina cost an extra $3, but where else are you going to get soulful boiled potatoes smothered in a zippy, super-smooth Peruvian cheese sauce?
Those spuds are a nice addition to Arroz con Pollo ($10), a weekend special. The homey chicken-and-rice entree regularly comes with lemony shaved red onions and cilantro rice.
Cilantro stars in the tangy sauce in which pot roast is cooked to create the terrific Frejoles con Seco ($10). The hearty entree includes peas, carrots, white rice and those crowd-pleasing pinto beans.
For something much lighter, try the modest-sized but vibrant and delightful Ceviche ($11). Among the most palatable tilapia around, it features firm pieces of raw fish and onion slivers “cooked” in a bright citrus bath tweaked with a bit of chili. Contrast arrives via bland hominy, toasted corn nuggets and a disc of mashed sweet potatoes. The dish is made to order, so you'll have ample time to pick out some prettily wrapped, addictive, house-made caramel-filled chocolates to eat while you wait.