Thursday, January 12, 2012

Channeling Your Inner Che -- El Pollo Rico

So I'm late to the party yet again.  El Pollo Rico.  Every area restaurant critic or food blogger worth her salt has already made the pilgrimage.  It's now a been-there-done-that kind of food destination for the culinary pen.  It's even a notch in the iconic belt of Anthony Bourdain.  And yet, as any party-goer who has ever crushed a can of Miller Lite against his frontal lobe well knows, parties themselves run on a kind of Pynchonian entropy.  Revelers fight.  Drink themselves sick.  Throw up.  Sneak off to screw like spider monkeys.  And yet the party manages to go on, through daylight and into dark again, as if by its own phenomenological volition and the 180 beats per minute coming from the overheated sub-woofer of the shared and collective soul.  And so seems to be the case with Arlington, Virginia's never-say-die and always-terrific El Pollo Rico.  Washington-area streets remain abuzz to this day, years into El Pollo Rico's hugely successful run, with tales of the proverbial gastronomic three-kegger that just won't quit and reports of chicken so good that even the stuffiest of gastronomes are reduced to behaving like frat boys bereft of their emotional equilibrium and pride.

The parking lot of El Pollo Rico is a study in Keatsian negative capability.  It's a shit hole that smells like heaven.  A blacktopped ruin that simultaneously repulses and attracts.  And likely cheapest date to free you of all epistemological bounds short of the famed "happy ending" you are ever likely to have.  It's seriously choked with traffic, the noon of my visit, and blighted with a whirling Charlie-don't-surf density of haze that smells exactly like charcoal and melted chicken fat, and which hits the brain like olfactory crack and makes you want to rip animal flesh off bones with your bare teeth.  It smells in I go.

Entering El Pollo Rico is no less vexing.  It's like to walking into a Foo Fighters show the precise moment Chris Shiflett decides to shred his lead through a stack of Marshall amps.  It's an auditory shit show that throws you off balance.  A din that keeps you dizzy.  There's the hiss of a hundred cooking chickens.  The roar of happy patrons.  The constant and unending pounding of a meat cleaver splitting chicken bones on a butcher's block.  And Spanish.  Lots of it.  Everywhere.  A parade of incessant noise.

This might explain how a guy like me, now hardly a neophyte in divining strange, even esoteric  culinary mojo, could stand slack-jawed before a menu sign, offering a single protein and two sides in perfectly legible English, and ask the middle-aged Peruvian pelon in front of me what I should eat.

The Peruvian looks at me like I am drunk or high or just plain fucking with him.  Deciding none of these scenarios is in play, he frowns and shakes his head.  It's a frown of pity.

"The chicken," he says.  "You order the chicken.  Dios mio."

It's so loud I can hardly make out what he says.

On my comrade's advice, I order a whole chicken with French fries (fried yucca is not offered) with a Mexican Coca-Cola and Inca Cola (imagine drinking bubble gum) to wash it down.  I do so in Spanish evidently so terrible that the young man behind the counter wielding the butcher's cleaver feels compelled to mention that in no way does my Spanish fail to suck.  I pay in cash (it cost less than twenty bucks), take a table in back, and tuck into my meal.

My understanding of how El Pollo Rico prepares their chicken is this:  they bathe their chicken in a top-secret marinade of Peruvian spices smuggled through customs in body cavities (I joke), then skewer the chicken on a large rotisserie, and finally roast the chicken over open-flame charcoal.  When the chicken is cooked, it's removed from the skewer and hacked by some erstwhile grammarian into four steaming, succulent sections.  The chicken is plated on styrofoam and paired with two sauces, one a kind of perky, yellow mayonnaise, and another of what I guessed to be a puree of jalepeno peppers and salt.

What comes of this preparation and open-flame cooking goes well, well beyond a simple kegger in one's mouth.  It is the food of South American revolution.  The stuff that can still oust tyrants, topple dictators, and set whole populations of the proletariate to riot with the desire to have something this rico, this amazing on their tables every night.  It is chicken that asks you to rise up and take back (gastronomically speaking) what is rightfully yours.  And so I take it down.  Section by section.  Bone by bone.  An entire roasted chicken dispatched with a simple one-two combination of my top incisors and my bare hands.  And when I look up from the carnage, people are pretending not to stare.  Except the Peruvian pelon.  He stares openly and smiles across the dining room as if to say he now understands I'm not the idiot he's taken me for after all, I'm just a lost gringo soul looking for a South American culinary flag to march behind.  But find it I have.  At 932 North Kenmore Street in Arlington, Virginia.  El Pollo Rico.  Revolutionaries they are, and revolutionaries to the man.

So I smile back at my newest bald friend, as if in benediction, as if to say viva revolucion, or, as it translates in American English, party on, dude.  Better late to the party than never, I say.

1 comment:

  1. I just wish all my friends could read this, gives a new meaning to "Chris Rocks". I belive that green hot sauce they offer contains a local Peruvian herb, (no sorry it's not coca")

    Keep on writing!!