Photo by Anne Fishbein
Mexican-American chefs roast a mean chicken; anyone who has spent 15 minutes in Huntington Park can tell you that. Armenian roast chickens spit and sizzle across Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley; Tuscan roast chickens dominate the leafier precincts of the Westside; plump, brittle-skinned Cantonese chickens, the broad San Gabriel Valley.
Yet the tastiest roast chickens in the Los Angeles area, if not the Western Hemisphere itself, are the smoky rotisserie fowl beloved by the Peruvian community, the shotgun marriage of plump birds, roaring wood fires, and a sharp marinade made with citrus, chiles and immoderate amounts of garlic. In Lima, the neighborhood around Plaza des Armas is thick with chicken restaurants, often featuring giant, rotating wagon wheels in their windows, skewered chickens twirling on the spokes over enormous, smoldering beds of coals. (In much of Latin America, Peru is as synonymous with these pollos a la brasa as Kentucky is with Extra Crispy.) In Los Angeles, Peruvian chicken specialists can often be identified by the firewood heaped outside, the leaping flames visible from the sidewalk, and the sweet, spicy smoke that can perfume a neighborhood for a couple of blocks on one side.
Peruvian roast chickens are the standard in the South Bay, where the El Pollo Inka chain holds sway, and in Koreatown, where the dominance of the occasionally inconsistent Pollo a la Brasa is challenged only by the peppery Central American fried chicken at Pollo Campero, which I would put in a separate category.
But the best chickens of all may be a couple blocks from the Glendale Galleria at a restaurant named El Loco del Pollo — the madness of the chicken — although the restaurant may or may not be changing its name to Lola’s to placate the unrelated El Pollo Loco juggernaut.
El Loco del Pollo is a long, narrow redoubt of used brick and rubbed copper and the other accouterments of tasteful adaptive reuse, dominated by a glass-enclosed rotisserie and a pyramid of flaming logs that squats in the middle of the dining room like a fiery, fuming shrine.
El Loco del Pollo is not an ambitious restaurant, you understand, and its short menu contains neither polished deconstructions of modern Peruvian cooking nor much in the way of regional dishes, neither exotic cold-current seafood nor spongy Andean tubers. You will have to look elsewhere for tiradito, broiled guinea pig, or Styrofoam-textured chuno.
But the ceviche is good, bits of raw fish briefly firmed in lime juice, warmed with Peruvian rocoto chiles, served with slivered red onion, bland slabs of yuca, and toasted kernels of cancha, the giant corn of the Peruvian highlands. The ceviche is clean and sharp-tasting, impeccably fresh, without even a hint of the funkiness that sometimes shadows uncooked seafood like a thuggish friend — here, even the ceviche, almost certainly made from frozen shrimp, is fine.
There is a reliable version of papas a la Huancaina, boiled potatoes smothered in a creamy cheese sauce, and a great plate of squid arrebozado, which is to say dipped in beaten egg whites before it is floured and fried. On occasion, you may find improbably delicious scallops baked with Parmesan and mozzarella, a dish that would get you thrown out of the kitchen in most parts of Italy. The saltados, strips of meat, seafood or chicken stir-fried with onions, tomatoes and limp French fries are fine; the tallarins, which are basically the same thing fried with noodles instead of potatoes, are better. The pescado a lo macho, fried fish topped with sautéed shellfish, is tasty; the same seafood cooked into a picante stew is watery and bland.
But the chickens are wondrous things, crisp-skinned and succulent, caramelized in spots and almost shockingly flavorful, with a sweetly teasing acidity and an elusive spiciness fluttering just below the smoky juiciness of the meat. This is the chicken of which empires are built and reputations are made, a chicken that would inspire a takeout line around the block if the street parking in the area were not quite so intimidating.
With the chicken comes a small crock of aji, the doctored chile purée that serves as a universal Peruvian condiment, and maybe some hand-cut French fries, stewed beans, or the mayonnaisey potato salad that is for some reason a Peruvian standard. It is enough.
Lola’s (El Loco del Pollo), 230 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5888. Lunch and dinner Mon. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Tues.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout and delivery. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$22. MC, V.