Peruvian chicken restaurants are popping up all over the greater Washington Aarea, especially in the suburban neighborhoods of Maryland and Northern Virginia. People have become very passionate about their favorite Peruvian outposts. Recently, there was an hour-long program on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi devoted to the subject of this cuisine’s growing popularity.
So, Bethesda now has two Peruvian chicken restaurants vying for an eager audience. Chicken on the Run opened a few years ago on St. Elmo Avenue. It’s a cramped place, with plentiful helpings. The new kid on the block is Don Pollo, on Wisconsin Avenue between Leland and Walsh Streets, a brighter, more spacious restaurant offering superior versions of typical Peruvian fare.
One of the reasons that Peruvian chicken restaurants have sprouted up all over is the ease at which you can pick up and take home a flavorful, healthy meal to a family or group. Both Don Pollo and Chicken on the Run offer rice and beans, yucca, salad, slaw, fries and sweet fried plantains.
They usually serve stews and soups as well. So, whether you’re an office worker in need of a fast, filling meal, or a family of five waiting for mom to bring home dinner, everyone is satisfied when you bring home Pollo a la Brasa.
When you visit Don Pollo at lunchtime, you’re startled by the avalanche of people who come through the line in just a few hours. From 11:45 am until 1:30 p.m., there’s a steady flow of customers, and at times every table is taken.
Don Pollo is blowing away the competition for a few reasons — it’s a cheery place with good service, high quality ethnic cuisine, and very reasonable prices. People from local office buildings and workers on the move look like they’ve been waiting for Don Pollo for decades.
When I arrived with my two friends for a weekday lunch, I first checked out the refrigerated case of drinks. One friend had recently visited Peru, so she suggested I try Inca Cola, a favorite drink of the region. I grabbed a bottle of yellow Inca Cola and ordered Aguadito, the soup of the day. I also opted for the black bean salad and fried yucca.
The tray was overflowing since the dishes included two dipping sauces — salsa verde (spicy) and salsa Amarillo (sweet) — plus salad dressing. We also ordered the rotisserie chicken, plantains, salad, beans and rice, and a dish called Chop Chop. None of us paid more than $12 for our hearty platters of food and drink. Tipping is optional.
We sat down in the colorful dining room with a cartoon of a jalapeno pepper painted on the wall and dug into our meals. The Chop Chop consisted of pulled chicken over white rice and black beans--it was a stew-like dish with a tomato base. We liked how juicy the chicken remained in the preparation — savory — light on the peppers and chilies as is common in Peruvian cuisine.
I was thinking to myself, ‘I want to go to Peru,’ as I sampled each of the dishes. The food was fresh and delicious. The crisp black bean salad, with corn, onions, jalapenos and tomatoes, was enhanced by the yellow mayonnaise sauce. The fried yucca was crackling hot and salty; the plantains were sweetly caramelized with brown sugar.
The piece de resistance at Don Pollo is the tender skin on the rotisserie chicken. After marinating in spices like paprika, garlic, oregano, cumin, lime juice and buttery oil, the chicken rotates in a fiery charcoal oven. The result is herbed skin and tender meat; although one friend thought the breast meat was dry. However, I informed this health-conscious critic, you really must eat the skin at places like this; how else can you appreciate the full experience?
I savored the Aguadito, or cilantro-infused chicken and rice soup. It had bits of carrots, peas, onions in a clear broth. Aguadito de Pollo is a traditional regional Peruvian soup and can be prepared many ways. The Inca Cola however, tasted like bubble gum and was sickeningly sweet. Not my favorite, but I know a few kids who would enjoy it.
The service was friendly and helpful, and I thought Don Pollo was a place to which I would return, perhaps even regularly.
Chicken on the Run
It’s been around for a while, and maybe before Don Pollo, Chicken on the Run enjoyed a steady default business. This narrow shop has seen better days and could use a good cleaning. The service was lackluster, and I was disappointed with the chicken here. It was deficient compared to the strong flavors found in Don Pollo’s chicken.
I enjoyed the French fries though, which we ordered instead of yucca. They were big, bold bites of potato. The coleslaw here isn’t like the light, vinegary slaw found at El Salvadoran restaurants; it was just a mayonnaise-drenched, wilted cabbage. The rice and beans had no flavor and should be avoided. Fortunately, there was one item that truly stands out at Chicken on the Run — the plantains. They were sweeter, creamier and less burnt than those at Don Pollo.
The Winner by a Wing: Don Pollo
To be fair, I didn’t compare the Chop Chop or soup, but, overall, Chicken on the Run doesn’t match up to its neighbor. So if you’re hankering for some Peruvian chicken and fixins, head over to Don Pollo.
Chicken on the Run
4933 St. Elmo Ave.
7007 Wisconsin Ave.