Pollo a la Brasa, a Peruvian Classic
Peruvian roast chicken
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been posting primarily about Peruvian classics. This week, I discuss what’s probably Peru’s most classic dish—pollo a la brasa.
I’ve met a few Peruvians who don’t eat ceviche, but I’ve never met a Peruvian who doesn’t like pollo a la brasa, Peruvian roast chicken.
Pollo a la Brasa consists of chickens marinated in a secret mixture of spices and herbs and then slow-cooked over charcoal.
See the beauty of pollo a la brasa for yourself by watching this short video a friend and I made in Cusco a few years back. It’s probably the most viewed thing that I’ve published, with 27k views and counting.
A couple of other terms before we go on— a pollería is a restaurant that serves pollo a la brasa and a pollero is a cook who specializes in pollo a la brasa.
Pollo a la Brasa is one of the dishes that Mariela misses the most when we’re away from Peru. On our travels, we’ve had chicken that looked similar on the surface, but none have matched the flavor that even your average neighborhood pollería in Peru has. I don’t even need to ask Mariela what food from Peru she misses most anymore. Midway from our cab home from Lima’s airport, I’ll pull out my phone and order pollo a la brasa for delivery so that it’s our first meal back in Peru.
After a period where we’d try various pollo a la brasa for delivery, we landed our favorite—Tori Pollería, a relatively new pollería created by Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura of Maido fame.
Pollo a la brasa is the quintessential family dinner out in Peru. It’s inexpensive, made for sharing, and delicious. Plus, it’s convenient; there’s a pollería in just about every neighborhood.
Pollo a la Brasa used to be a delicacy for the rich, but a Swiss man named Roger Schuler invented a way to scale up the process and cook multiple chickens simultaneously on revolving spits. Nowadays, thanks to Schuler’s invention, over 25 million Peruvians eat this classic dish a day. Pollo a la Brasa is so beloved that there’s a special day dedicated to it (the third Sunday of July).
When Schuler first opened his restaurant, Pollo a la Brasa was all-you-can-eat. Given the popularity of Pollo a la Brasa and the Peruvian appetite, that certainly wouldn’t be a good business proposal nowadays. The Schuler family continues to offer Pollo a Brasa at Granja Azul.
Pollo a la Brasa is a relatively simple dish in terms of ingredients. The more we travel out of Peru, the more we realize how intrinsically good the chicken in Peru tastes. In many countries (the US included), chicken is simply a blank canvas and does not have much taste.
What separates a good pollo a la brasa from a great one? For starters, there’s the secret marinade that varies from place to place. I’ve never attempted to make pollo a la brasa at home so I haven’t really explored what goes into the marinade (it’s hard to muster the effort for a project like this when there are so many pollerías in Lima).
The marinade can have a dozen or more ingredients and is said to include a wide range of ingredients, but aji panca (a smoky pepper paste), garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, dark beer, cumin, oregano, and paprika are commonly used. Some recipes catering to home cooks outside of Peru include some dubious ingredients like Worcestershire sauce to boost the umami. In addition to the marinade, the wood adds a requisite smoky dimension to the flavors.
I feel that it’s the technique that really separates a good pollo a la brasa from a great one. The biggest factors under the control of the pollero (the cook) are time and temperature. Controlling the dynamic between these two factors is what creates the beautiful texture of the chicken. The revolving spit helps achieve an even texture and prevents the chicken from drying out. It also allows the pollero to cook many chickens at the same time.
A great pollo a la brasa has crispy skin and a beautiful fall-apart texture. It is juicy but not greasy. The spices of the marinade permeate the whole chicken.
The Pollo a la Brasa Experience
People go to pollerías for the chicken, but there are now more and more dishes that you can select to customize your meal. Usually, a family will order a chicken to share. A personal order of Pollo a la Brasa comes in 1/4 (cuarto pollo) and 1/2 chicken (medio pollo) sizes.
The classic question when you order Pollo a la Brasa is ¿pierna o pecho? Leg or chest? Many Peruvians will have a strong preference for one over the other. The leg tends to have a more intense flavor but the breast is easier to eat and milder. When sharing a chicken, it’s interesting to see if people’s preferences naturally sort themselves out or if there will be competition for the leg or the breast.
A typical order of Pollo a la brasa usually comes with french fries and a trio or quartet of sauces—ketchup, mayonnaise, and ají which is a house sauce. Sometimes, in addition to these three sauces, there’s a green “aji verde” sauce made from huacatay (Andean mint) and aji amarillo. I usually go straight for the house sauces. The recipe for ají varies from restaurant to restaurant, but the recipe usually involves Peruvian yellow pepper, queso fresco, and herbs including huacatay (Andean mint). A good ají helps accentuate the whole experience. I often will remember a pollería by its ají. Don’t be afraid to ask for more ají!
Also, about the fries … Peruvians take their potato seriously; a lot of the best fries I’ve had in Peru was at a pollería.
An order of pollo a la brasa used to come with a trip to the salad bar. However, post-COVID, restaurants now serve a small side salad with the chicken in lieu of a full salad bar. A salad at a pollo a la brasa restaurant actually can be one of the best opportunities to load up on veggies while in Peru (beets, peas, lettuce, and of course, potatoes). If there is a salad bar, a quick glance can be a way to gauge the overall quality of the establishment. If the veggies are old and wilted, you may want to choose a different location.
In addition to pollo a la brasa, pollerías oftentimes also serve these dishes:
Aguadito is a rice and chicken soup. While they are available as a separate dish, it is often included at no extra charge when you order a quarter chicken or more. It can also be ordered separately. The thickness and consistency of the soup vary from place to place, but it is identifiable by its characteristic green color which stems from the cilantro. It’s a clever way to use the previous day’s leftover chicken. The rice in the aguadito can be a bit filling so be careful to save room for the chicken.
The name, salchipapas, is a combination of “salchichas” (sausages) and “papas” (potatoes) which perfectly describes this fast-food favorite. French fries and sliced sausages are stir-fried together, often with a fried egg and cheese added in. Salchipapas are served with ketchup, mayo, mustard, and ají amarillo sauce. This dish was invented in Lima and has since expanded to other parts of Latin America.
Choripapas is a dish similiar to salchipapas that combines chorizo and french fries.
Many pollerías also serve other types of meat like chuleta (thin cutlet of pork, grilled) or anticuchos (grilled cow heart on skewers). Anticuchos are a whole other topic that deserves its own post. I personally recommend ordering anticuchos at a restaurant that specializes in anticuchos, but sometimes an extra skewer of anticucho is exactly what it takes to fill you up. Another classic is the chancho a la caja china, pork that’s cooked in a special box apparatus that gives it a smoky flavor.
More modern pollerías like Primo’s have been branching out in new directions with menu options such as wings, wraps, and fried chicken sandwiches.
To wash it all down, chicha morada, purple corn punch, or Inka Kola, a sugary yellow soda that is ubiquitous in Peru, are popular choices. Pisco sours are another option. Note though that pisco sours at pollerías tend to be smaller and less refined than the kind that you order in a bar. It usually is cheaper as well.
Pollo a la Brasa coming to a pollería near you
Pollo a la Brasa is one of the Peruvian dishes that has traveled the furthest. It is one of Peru’s most popular culinary exports. Pollo a la Brasa restaurants have opened in many cities including San Fransico, New York City, and Chicago.
I had my first Pollo a la Brasa in San Francisco at Limón, years before I really knew what Peruvian food was. I had my second Pollo a la Brasa in Nazca because that’s what you have in Peru when you have a hungry group of people and don’t know where else to go (the dining options in Nazca are also pretty sparse). Since then, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had Pollo a la Brasa.
Buy My Guidebook to Peruvian Food
If you’re traveling to Peru, consider buying my guidebook which provides recommendations for where to try Pollo a la Brasa and all of the Peruvian classics (I cover over 100 dishes!)