Friday, January 15, 2010

El Pollo: little gem in the heart of Park Slope

By Marshall Slater

El Pollo is a warm, intimate space whose popularity is gathering strong momentum thanks to that most reliable of all advertising methods…word of mouth.

It’s a cute, cozy eatery whose homegrown emblem is a charming little chick dressed whimsically in a traditional Peruvian alpaca chullo hat and shawl. Barely more than 10 tables, which accommodate twosomes and are positioned together for parties of four, this is a real neighborhood gem that one would barely notice when wandering by. But there are three things that almost everyone who has been there agrees upon: the food is first rate, the prices are very reasonable (special kudos go to the $6 lunch) and it is confusing, considering the former two, why you can always find a table free. But hey, just because people have caught up with what’s good, that’s good for you as you can tell them you pioneered the discovery of this place. Soon enough you’ll have to wait for a table too, so enjoy it while you can.

If you happened to find yourself in Peru, and a family adopted you and invited you to dinner, that is about how you will be treated at El Pollo. It’s a family affair in which daughter Marzia tends to the dining room and her mom, Carmen, does all the cooking in the back. Marzia gets high marks at all times for her considerable charm and wide smile, and when you come back a second time (and you will), she will remember you and greet you like a returning friend.

You’re an invited guest partaking of the family meal at El Pollo. And family is the word for this laid back space with handicrafts and art works of their native land on the walls; the tables are covered in butcher paper so the kids (or you) can amuse themselves with crayons until the meal arrives.

The place is very friendly, doesn’t mind at all if you linger during your meal and has a very welcoming aura. It’s not fancy, but it is embracing and you’ll savor every meal.

So let’s begin with the Papa Rellena, a large, fluffy baked potato with the inside scooped out and the cavity refilled with a ground beef blend, which is enhanced with a slightly sweet accent that comes from a mix of cilantro (which makes everything taste great), tomato, onion, tiny raisins, a little egg, aji peppers and olives; the skin is crunchy and almost translucently thin. The potato is airy and most satisfying, and is accompanied with shards of excellent red onion and tomato chunks with lemon and spices.

The Papa ala Huancaina is another Peruvian staple consisting of sliced boiled potatoes covered in a spicy pale yellow cheese sauce. It’s delicious made with yellow or white potatoes. If you prefer a spicier sauce, add an extra yellow chile pepper.

Dipping sauces include a super hot, bring-tears-to-your-eyes green chili and a much milder sour cream based version.

Another starter is the Yuca Frita, a side dish or appetizer made from the fried root of the cassava (or yucca) plant. Usually, the root is cut into two- or three-inch chunks and deep-fried in vegetable oil. The result is similar to a wedge-cut French fry, but more fibrous.Of course, chicken is the main event at El Pollo, served whole, or as a half or as a quarter, alone or as the main ingredient in a dozen dishes. Whichever way you end of getting it, you can be assured of tender, succulent meat with skin seared just right that you will wish to enjoy again and again. Enjoy the fowl with traditional yellow rice and creamy, hearty beans or order it as a stew, or stir-fried with rice or BBQ style.

Adding side dishes is a great touch, whether you opt for the curly fries or the green or sweet plantains.

Of course, if you wish to get a little fancier, try the Lomo o Pollo Saltado, which offers stir friend strips of chicken or sirloin prepared with onions, tomato and cilantro, with the fries thrown into the mix, all wonderfully spiced, all tender and juicy, and all very, very good. Think of this dish as a more satisfying version of fajitas.

Other choices include the Pork Chops served with rice and beans, the pepper steak, and a sirloin sautéed with onions. There are several seafood dishes in addition, like the stir-fried shrimp, the seafood casserole with a rice base studded with shrimp, calamari, crab meat, clams, mussels and lobster meat with scallions and chopped eggs or the fresh fish filet sautéed with onions, tomato, garlic and cilantro.

Looking for a sandwich? There are two excellent choices: the El Pollo Hero ($6) with roasted chicken and a house dressing with lettuce, tomato and cucumbers or the Peruvian Guacamole Hero, also with roasted chicken.

As is amply demonstrated, the menu does not stray far from tried and true favorites, but there is tremendous pride in the preparation and mama’s considerable experience and expertise go into every dish that leaves her kitchen.

Quench your thirst with the unique Chicha Morada or Purple Corn Drink, made fresh from scratch, with some chopped up apple, brown sugar and a little lime…rich in antioxidants, refreshingly sweet without being cloying and only $2.50 for a large glass.

Desserts range from Quinoa Pudding, sort of like a rice pudding but served warm with cinnamon on top, to the Leche Asada, their version of a crème brulee in cake form but reversed so the caramel is on the bottom. And they even have Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream should you choose a closer to home “Peruvian” confection.

El Pollo
718-369-3455 or 56291
Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, between First & Second streets
Hours: Open seven days a week, noon – 11 p.m.; lunch is served 12:30-4:30 p.m. Monday – Friday.

Most major credit cards are accepted.Private parties up to 28 are accommodated, outside catering is a specialty.

They offer free delivery within the Park Slope area.


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