San Fernando’s pollo a la brasa, with sauce-painting apparatus.

San Fernando’s pollo a la brasa, with sauce-painting apparatus.

How to Make Roast Chicken Palatable

Mexican, Peruvian, and Cantonese takes on dinner’s most boring animal.

In general, I think that the best roast chicken is the one that comes out of your own oven. Every few months I roast up a chicken for Sunday family dinner, having dry-brined it a day or two in advance. That marvel of those first bites–the skin crackling as the knife slices through it and the juices beading up around the fork–is impossible to repeat, even 20 minutes later. That’s why I get antsy if my sister hasn’t fully set the table when the chicken is ready to cut up, and why I don’t buy rotisserie chickens from grocery stores, even when their pedigrees outclass mine. Somewhere in between the market and my parking spot, while the bird fogs up its plastic case, while that smell of roast meat casts a witchy glamour far more dangerous to other drivers than a cell phone in one hand and an open fifth of Maker’s clutched between your thighs, the roast chicken becomes less than marvelous. The muscle fibers tense back up, the skin softens. It returns to being chicken: the world’s most boring animal to eat. (Except when it’s fried, in which case it transcends its species.)

So when I do buy a roast chicken, I’ll get something rubbed up—a paste of garlic and chiles, say, or a five-spice marinade. I need something extra to make the meat taste like more than chicken, so that well into the meal, as I’m stripping the bones of the remaining shreds of flesh, I remember that it’s not cured pork.

Sometimes that means hitting the Cantonese barbecue places in the ID, with their slightly garish window displays of Disney-hued ducks hooked by the neck, the marinade dripping from wingtips and drumsticks into hotel pans underneath, and their haunches of roast pork (siu yok) whose bubbly, golden skin has been mysteriously transformed into cracklings on the hog. While King’s Barbecue House (518 Sixth Ave. S.) is my source for soy sauce chicken, steamed to the most improbable tenderness and basted in a sweet, anise-tinged soy marinade, 663 Bistro does the best Cantonese roast chicken.

The chickens at 663 are evenly coated in a food-dye-free lacquer that my cookbooks say contains hoisin, soy, and five-spice powder but which is impossible to parse on the bird. Ask for chicken, and the butcher will haul a four-pounder from the steam table to his cutting board. Then with a series of offhanded thwacks he takes a cleaver the size of a toaster and splits the bird into chunks. I always half-watch, shoulders tense, sure that the cleaver is going to take off a thumb as it languorously slices through chicken bone; but soon enough, the butcher’s using all 10 juice-glistened fingers to load the chicken into a styrofoam container (inexpensive chicken, plastic containers—yeah, yeah, this is not a meal for when you’re feeling sustainability-oriented). Then he makes the real magic happen: After dipping a ladle in a soup-warmer, he pours a quarter-cup of marinade (mingled with the juices of who knows how many animals) over the bird before he shuts the lid. A half-chicken, some steamed or stir-fried greens, and a bowl of rice: a weeknight dinner for the ages.

If I’m within a few miles of White Center, I’m usually stopping in at Rosticeria y Cocina El Paisano, the best Mexican sit-down restaurant with the least comfortable seats. A visit there usually involves birria, carnitas, or a mammoth bowl of seafood cocktel, but in honor of this article I finally ordered one of the chickens kept warm under the heat lamps—after all, the “rosticeria” in the name refers to the cola-colored birds, which you can order by the quarter, half, or whole. A half-chicken platter ($7.50) is the size of a hubcap, and the plate is two-thirds filled with rice, refried beans, and undressed lettuce to complement the meat when you wrap it in tortillas. Maybe it was just because I stopped in later in the evening, but I found the chicken overcooked—not tough, but dry. However, the magenta paste rubbed thickly over the bird, which was tinged with garlic and cinnamon, was so fragrant that I used my last two tortillas to make chicken-skin tacos.

The find that led me to revisit all these restaurants—stocking my freezer with enough shredded meat to supply chicken-salad sandwiches to a fifth-grade class—was San Fernando’s Pollo a la Brasa, in Lynnwood, which specializes in Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Pollo a la brasa has such a high popularity rating that in every city where it lands, one store seems to morph into competing chains.

Not only did I enjoy San Fernando’s chicken—which you can order to go or claim one of the six tables to eat in—but ever since White Center’s El Chalan and Kirkland’s Mixtura both closed, it’s the only Peruvian restaurant in the area. The strip-mall storefront serves homestyle food that’s as potato-centered as you’d imagine of an Andean nation. Start with papas a la huancaina, hard-boiled eggs and thick rounds of potato boiled to the texture of a soft jack cheese smothered in a pale yellow cheese sauce spiked with pureed aji chiles. Or the papa rellena, a deep-fried shepherd’s pie the shape of a toy football, in which mashed potatoes are molded around a clump of ground beef and vegetables. Peruvians even demand potatoes in their chifa (Chinese food); San Fernando’s lomo saltado is a stir-fry of beef, tomatoes, onions, and French fries that, despite the fact that it’s simply seasoned with soy sauce, makes you think about pulling the Fry Daddy out of the cabinets so you can have it for dinner three times a week.

The menu also lists stewed tripe, fried pork chops, and chicken and rice, but I ran back up to San Fernando two days after my first visit because they only serve cebiche on weekends. I used to submit the traditional cebiche mixto—no dainty appetizer in Peru but served by the platter—to logical tests: What is that sweet potato really doing on the plate? Does field corn really go with whitefish and octopus soaked in chile- and cilantro-flecked lime juice? Just as with Chicago-style dogs and sweet pickle relish, I still don’t understand how the flavors go together, but I miss them when they’re absent. Hell, I’ve missed cebiche mixto since I left the Bay Area, so while San Fernando’s version is far from the greatest I’ve tasted, I attacked the heap of seafood like a returning New Yorker to his first three pepperoni slices.

The rotisserie at the center of the open kitchen is where the staff pulls its pollo a la brasa out of. And while the skin, dark and grainy from the pureed spices rubbed into it, isn’t papery-crisp, the meat from breast to drumstick is shiny with juices and saturated with the flavor of roasted garlic. There’s no need for sauce with a chicken that moist, but for kicks, pick up the squirt bottle labled “rocoto,” a fruity puree of a native Peruvian chile that should be measured out in microdots if you hope to regain the use of your tastebuds within the hour. It’s roast chicken, no doubt, but definitely one that will keep your interest piqued.

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