Must Haves: El Pollo Rico's World Famous Peruvian Chicken

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

No restaurant epitomizes the concept of doing one thing well like El Pollo Rico.

You know El Pollo Rico. People in Guam know El Pollo Rico thanks to Tony Bourdain. And if you know El Pollo Rico, you know the chicken is fantastic. So fantastic, in fact, that you ignore the miserably bland fries and crappy cole slaw that every order comes with. You ignore the awkward location, the ugly interior and the owners' legal troubles.

You ignore all that because that chicken, coated in Peruvian spices (ground Inca and cocaine) and rotisseried round and round, is absolutely amazing.

DSCN5799 I've probably eaten hundreds of chickens in my lifetime. After all, it's the first white meat. Yet, I remember the first time I had El Pollo Rico. My buddy Columbo brought a few earth-friendly Styrofoam containers full of half chickens and fries over to my girlfriend's efficiency near Virginia Square. I still remember tearing into the chicken and being blown away by the flavor and thinking, "Wow, these fries really suck."

That's the thing, though, the fries don't matter. The fact that the restaurant is located between Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, and yet can't be seen from either doesn't matter. The fact that the rest of Clarendon has transformed into a dining destination for hipsters and the well-heeled doesn't seem to matter either.

That damn chicken made El Pollo Rico an Arlington institution a long time ago. And as long as they keep cranking out that magical Peruvian bird, it'll remain an institution, crappy French fries and all.

El Pollo Rico
932 Kenmore St.
Arlington, Va. 22201  

Grilled Chicken: Twelve months in the making

Image044A chicken recipe. Of course I have a chicken recipe.

I mean, I should have a chicken recipe, right?

In the year or so I've written this grilling column, I covered blood sausage, octopus, pork butt, eggs, oysters, fish, shell fish, French toast, and giant brats. Surely somewhere amongst all that I did a chicken post.

Well, not really.

A while back, my buddy Jason was in town to do a book signing at the American History Museum (Jason's a Lincoln historian, which is interesting until you're two hours into a yarn about Mary Lincoln's shopping habits. That's about the time I wish Booth would sneak up on me.). Jason spends much more of his time thumbing through old records than in front of a grill. So he asked me if I had a recipe for grilling chicken.

Of course I do. I'm the grilling guy and chicken is one of the most common meats Americans cook, indoors and out. Then I checked the Website. In the past 12 months, I've covered chicken twice. Twice! And neither post had anything to do with grilling.

So, time to address chicken.

During Jason's visit, I also learned that he'd never tried thyme. Thyme, people. It's one of the most common spices in our collective cupboard. It's not like the guy hadn't tried grains of paradise. Jason hadn't tasted an herb only slightly less popular than oregano. (To be fair, I introduced Jason to shrimp six years ago. Afterward, he was convinced he could feel them in his stomach. But still.)

This put me on a mission. I needed to come up with a recipe for grilled chicken and thyme. And as good as dried thyme is, I would use the fresh stuff growing in my backyard. The problem is, depending on weight, a standard chicken takes about 45 minutes to an hour on the grill. By then, the fresh thyme would be charred and denuded of any flavor. Instead, I decided to use an old barbecue technique. More on that in a minute.

Let's talk chicken. Not long ago, I started shopping at the H St. farmer's market. It's small, but the lineup of purveyors is solid. Among the vendors who show up every Saturday is a Mennonite farmer and his sons. The guy brings all kinds of beautiful cuts of meat, including free-range chicken.

Admission: Until that day, I had not cooked a free-range chicken. I'm all about the free-range movement, but I'm lazy and was happy with the birds I bought at Eastern Market and the grocery store. Then I read Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall's excellent book on butchery and sustainable farming, The River Cottage Meat Book. The guy lays out all the moral and culinary reasons we should eat free-range raised animals and support the farmers and butchers who provide the products to us.

So I bought a $16 free-range chicken and tossed it on the grill for an hour ... and served if half cooked to my buddy Columbo and his wife (Columbo, by the way, has never let me forget the first time I attempted beer-can chicken many years ago. The outcome was much, much worse.)

Turns out, thanks to all that walking around, free-range chickens have denser meat than the cage-raised birds we're accustomed to buying and eating. Consequently, free-range birds need to cook a lot longer.
All this is a long-winded way of setting up my latest recipe: grilled free-range chicken with thyme.

Image020 As I said, an hour on the grill will destroy fresh thyme. So instead of adding the herb before I cooked the bird, I incorporated it afterward - by seasoning my cutting board.

It's common when doing barbecue to season your cutting board with salt, pepper, butter and whatever other seasoning you're using before carving the meat. That way the juices mingle with the seasonings, and the seasoning adhere to the interior of the meat.

The same principle applies here. I simply covered my chicken with canola oil, salt and pepper, and threw it on the grill for an hour and 40 minutes. After I pulled it off and let it rest, I drizzled quality olive oil onto my cutting board and shook some salt and pepper over top. Then I covered it all with about a handful of thyme.

Image012 When it came time to carve the chicken, I set the bird on the board and slid my knife through the crispy skin exterior to the pool of seasonings beneath the bird. The result was a perfectly grilled chicken coated in olive oil and thyme. Just for good measure, I squeezed a lemon over top and scattered a little more thyme.

The chicken was delicious and the thyme works great with it. However, for all the moral virtues of raising chicken in a free-range environment, the flavor didn't translate. And when you're spending twice as much and cooking it nearly twice as long, you expect more than a clear conscience at the end of the meal. Unfortunately, my free-range chicken tasted like every store-bought bird I've cooked on the grill. 

There you have it, a chicken recipe. It may have taken a Lincoln historian, a Mennonite, a Polk County blogger, and a James Beard Award winning book, but I finally produced a grilling recipe for one of the most common foods we eat.

Image045 To go with my ubiquitous meat, I picked up a ubiquitous beer: pilsner. Hands down, pilsner is the most popular beer style in the world, thanks in large part to the Belgian pilsner brewed in St. Louis, Mo. But don't let that "American pilsner" fool you, pilsner tastes good. You just have to keep the rice and corn out of the malt. Well, Monteith's brews the best pilsner I've had in a long time. The New Zealand brewery's golden pilsner is rich and slightly crisp, perfect for these sweaty D.C. days. It also pairs well with the subtle flavors of a dish like grilled chicken and thyme. As much as I love IPAs, the hoppy flavors would overwhelm the thyme. Now, because pilsner is the world-wide favorite, there are plenty to choose from, just steer clear of the Belgian stuff.

Grilled free-range chicken with thyme
(Makes 2 large servings or four small)

1 4 lb. free-range chicken (if you don't use a free-range bird, reduce the cooking time down to about an hour)
1/4 cup of fresh thyme
1 lemon (optional)
Canola oil
A good quality olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

To get started, pull the chicken out of the refrigerator so it can loose some of its chill, and start your grill. For this recipe, you will be doing all indirect grilling. That means if you're using a charcoal grill, set up your fire to one side of the grill and plan to grill the chicken on the other side. If you're using a gas grill, light all your burners, but be ready to shut the middle ones down when you put the bird on (this way, the middle grates will be nice and hot when the chicken goes on.)

Butterfly the chicken by removing the backbone (you can have your butcher do this for you), thoroughly coat the skin with canola oil, and season generously with salt and pepper.

Image004 When the grill is ready, place the chicken on the cooler side of the grate breast-side up (if you're using a gas grill, place the chicken in the middle of the grill, turn the center burners off, but keep the left and right burners on). Shut the lid and look to maintain a temperature of about 350 degrees.

Entertain yourself for an hour and 40 minutes.

When you open the lid, the skin should be golden brown and crispy. Remove the chicken from the grill and allow to rest for 15 minutes. In the meantime, coat your cutting board with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and most of the thyme. Transfer the bird to the board and cut it up. If you want, squeeze a lemon over top (few things are better than hot chicken and fresh lemon juice).

Before serving, drizzle a little more olive oil on top and scatter the remaining thyme. You can either serve the chicken rustic style straight from the cutting board or transfer it to a platter. Whatever you do, make sure you drag the meat through that oil and seasoning. Doing so may make the extra money and time seem worth it.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

40_cloves_of_garlic_chicken After my first visit to the Takoma Park Farmer's Market, I wanted to go back for a whole young chicken from Smith Meadows Farm.  I have been on a quest to make a perfect roast chicken for a while now with little success.  A fellow foodie friend suggested using a whole young chicken as opposed to a standard roasting chicken from the supermarket.  I was told a young chicken is more tender and lends itself better to a  juicy roast as opposed to the leathery, dry meat I often produce.  I begun searching online for an exceptional roast chicken recipe before remembering this Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic recipe.  I altered it very slightly so that everything I used for the recipe came from my CSA box or my visit to Takoma Park. 

This is the perfect dish for a cold Winter's day.  It's a beautiful chicken seasoned with fresh herbs and enough garlic to kill a village of vampires!  And it's all done in the crock pot, resulting in the most delicious aromas wafting through your house.  Add some roasted rosemary fingerling potatoes and you have the bounties of Winter right there on your dinner plate.  Dishes like this are exactly why I choose local, fresh and in season ingredients.  When you use such quality ingredients, you don't need to do a lot to make them great. 

Chicken with 40 Cloves of GarlicYoung_chicken_and_garlic_cloves
1 4-lb young whole chicken
1 fresh sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
1 fresh sprig of rosemary, whole
1 fresh sprig of thyme, finely chopped
1 fresh sprig of thyme, whole
2 fresh stalks of micro Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 fresh stalks of micro Italian parsely, whole
40 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
Fresh ground pepper

Pat dry the chicken and set it on a plate.  If not already done, remove the innards from the cavity of the whole chicken. Place the whole rosemary, thyme and parsley inside the cavity of the chicken, along with the five peeled cloves of garlic.  Place the chicken in the crock pot but do not turn it on yet.  Wash your hands and then grind the pepper over the chicken (the amount of pepper depends on your personal taste level - I added almost a 1/2 teaspoon).  Then evenly sprinkle the finely chopped rosemary, thyme and parsley over the chicken.  Add in the 40 cloves of garlic around the chicken, cover the crock pot  and turn it on low.  Cook for 8 to 10 hours. 

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked, carve and serve with a pound of roasted fingerling potatoes tossed with fresh chopped rosemary, salt, pepper and 1/4 cup of good olive oil.  The roasted garlic cloves can be used in other dishes calling for roasted garlic.