Peruvian rotisserie chicken (pollo a la brasa) inspires all kinds of infighting. There's the question of what spices belong in the marinade, which chain cooks the juiciest bird, how the skin should be—and that's all before we get to the sauce.
There is one essential truth about the dish: Everyone who loves it knows their favorite place to get it. And with Washington, DC's sizable Peruvian population, there is no shortage of excellent Peruvian pollerias to argue about.
Peruvian chicken is made distinct from the typical spit-roasted bird through the emphasis of charcoal and live fire, which impart a smokier, more woodsy flavor than a gas oven or electric heating element. Seasoned with a marinade of the likes of garlic, cumin, paprika, black pepper, and myriad other spices shrouded in proprietary secrecy, Peruvian chicken is a lot like DC's other signature dish, the half-smoke, in that most iterations share the same fundamentals with subtle twists. Also like the half-smoke, chefs with Peruvian heritage beyond the fast casual pollerias have brought their takes into up-market restaurants.
When done well (not to be confused with well done), Peruvian chicken has a crisp, herb-encrusted skin and a moist, juicy interior. It should spin constantly on the spit so it's crisp all over, and every bite should have a pleasant juicy rejoinder of schmaltz, spice, and smoke.
Then there's the sauces: typically one green and one yellow aji chili sauce, both made with sunny aji amarillo pepper and grassy jalapeno. The green one usually adds cilantro for an herbal note and mayo for creaminess, while the yellow is more streamlined. These sauces bring heat and creaminess while an accompaniment of crisp yucca fries turns a bargain meal into a gut-busting one.
Pollo a la brasa is rarely bad, but many restaurants have consistency issues. Shops that don't make the grade generally tend to do so because birds either cook too long or not long enough. Too much time on the spit chars skin and dries out meat; birds left to languish in the warming tray develop soggy skin.
With all of this in mind, here is what is sure to not drum up any controversy whatsoever: Our own survey of the best Peruvian chickens DC has to offer, from strip mall shops to high end restaurants.
El Pollo Rico
Unsurprisingly, we're kicking off our list with the name that's more or less synonymous with Peruvian chicken in the DC area. While plenty of shops vie for the top spot, EPR retains its dominance for its consistency. EPR nails juicy flesh and crispy, spice-and-herb-flecked skin every time, and it's a bankable spot to see what pollo a la brasa is all about. EPR's skin comes reliably crackly, and every square centimeter is generously apportioned with garlic, cumin, and citrus for a harmonious, balanced spice blend.
Better still: A half chicken and EPR's housemade sauces (a chile verde that pops with heat and a creamy aji mayo; consider mixing them together) come for just $8.25. It's an easy recommendation to make.
The Chicken Rico cooks massage the house marinade both on the skin and underneath, and the trick works for bringing even more flavor to the flesh of the bird. A half chicken with two sides and the requisite green and yellow sauces is $9.89, which leaves you some wallet space for a wide array of Peruvian dishes like lomo saltado, a worthy marinated beef stir fry seasoned with soy sauce, aji peppers, and cilantro, then heaped over rice and french fries.
Despite the similarity in naming conventions, Chicken Rico is separate, though also popular, chain of pollerias from EPR. Coming from decades of family tradition (their first restaurant opened in Peru in the '70s by the current owner's grandmother), Chicken Rico keeps growing with a new shop on H Street. And I give it the edge over EPR for the marinade treatment that brings so much extra flavor to the skin and meat. Spice, salt, and fresh herbs reach down to the bones, and this extra bite keeps me coming back to Chicken Rico.
Chef Victor Albisu's take on the Argentine asado is replete with grilled meats of all kinds, so there's little surprise that he's included his take on Peruvian chicken ($24 for a half bird). The key to Del Campo's chicken actually comes from another member of the poultry family. Albisu rubs healthy portions of duck fat (infused with cumin, onion, garlic, paprika, and Albisu's own secret ingredients) under the chicken's skin before applying a marinade to the skin. He then broils the bird until the skin achieves the golden luminescence of the best Korean fried chicken, largely thanks to the extra fat and oil applied underneath.
This technique makes the chicken richer, more fatty, and buttery than it'd otherwise be, and the added fat turns the skin turn extra-crisp. The chicken is served with an aji amarillo mayo and a green chili and cilantro purée (that come pre-mixed together) and perfectly crispy, starchy yucca fries, for something that's both excellent comfort food but also a little refined. True, you'll pay more than twice than the price at the spots above, but the ingredients and technique make the premium worth the splurge.
A newly opened Peruvian restaurant on H Street, Ocopa is somewhat of an unconventional inclusion to this list. The menu includes pollo a la brasa ($18 for 3-and-a-half-ounce portions of breast and thigh), but the chicken never sees the inside of a rotisserie. That'd be impractical to install in the under-30-seat restaurant, so instead chef Carlos Delgado cooks his boned chicken sous vide for an hour before finishing it on a gas grill.
His birds are marinated in the same mixture of Peruvian peppers, cumin, garlic, and other spices that you'll find elsewhere, but the meat takes on a different texture from other rotisseried or broiled birds: even more tender and moist, a little less firm. The dish is completed by the familiar aji amarillo, chimichurri, and yucca, along with bits of roast cauliflower and red onions for good measure. Purists may scoff at the modernized presentation, but Delgado makes a compelling case for sous vide, turning an already wonderful dish into something even more chin-drippingly juicy.