In the final days of 1949, a few years before Ray Kroc and Glenn Bell would change the American diet forever, two Swiss-Peruvians named Roger Schuler and Franz Ulrich opened a restaurant in Lima that would become as influential in Peru as McDonald's and Taco Bell have become here. At La Granja Azul, Schuler and Ulrich introduced a rotating spit that could roast dozens of chickens at one time over carob-wood charcoal. Over the coming decades, competitors emerged — first a few, then thousands — and today pollo a la brasa, served with fries and a green salad on the side, is part of Peru's culinary heritage.
It's not surprising to see pollo a la brasa begin to have the same effect in San Francisco, a city whose love for Peruvian fare can be traced back to the Gold Rush, when the shipping trade brought sailors and pisco (Peruvian brandy) up the Pacific Coast and the city's first Peruvian restaurant opened. In more recent times, San Franciscans have taken to ceviche, causas, and lomo saltado as if we'd been raised with them. So why not pollo a la brasa, too?
Martin Castillo's first pollero, the Limon Rotisserie on South Van Ness, was designed to be a casual offshoot of his soigné Valencia Street bistro. In December, Castillo opened a second Rotisserie in Bayview, and converted his flagship bistro in February — whose quality had sunk along with its fortunes — into a third, all three sharing the same menu and the same midweek-outing prices.
Castillo's Bayview rotisserie is housed in a mixed-use condo development, across a courtyard from a Fresh & Easy grocery store. Even if it does exude a more prefab-construction atmosphere than the other two locations, the new Limon is an attractive place, with handsome chocolate banquettes and tables, George Nelson bubble lambs, and a floor painted the color of glowing charcoal.
The pollo a la brasa at Castillo's original rotisserie is still my favorite chicken in the city, but the cooks at the new location haven't yet mastered the art of the spit. Our half chicken ($10.95) came out roughly hacked, and the skin, with its mottling of spice and achiote paste, was torn and scrunched. The breast meat had dried out and the thigh muscles had stiffened up. I could cover some of the flaws with a dunking in a creamy sauce of rocoto chiles and red bell peppers, or by drizzling a spoonful of Limon's chile-flecked, acid-spiked chimichurri sauce onto the meat, but roast chicken shouldn't require apologetic gestures.
Last winter, Christopher and Veronica Laramie, chef-owners of eVe, announced that their modernist bistro would be moving into a larger space and that they'd transform their tiny original restaurant into a Peruvian pollero. (The transformation wasn't as oddball as it might sound; Veronica Laramie was raised in Lima.) eVe closed in January, and Brasa opened six weeks later. Clearly modeled after Limon Rotisserie, it serves pollo a la brasa and a choice of other Peruvian standards — Chinese-Peruvian lomo saltado, roasted pork, shrimp — sold as sandwiches ($8) or rice bowls ($7.50).
The Laramies did a quick remodel of the space, adding a counter for ordering at the front and installing a rotisserie in the open kitchen, painting an abstract mural of birds in flight on the cream walls and adding a flash of red in the back. Like Limon Rotisserie, their roast chicken is sold by the whole ($21.75), half ($13.75), or quarter ($8.75), along with side dishes such as skinny sweet potato fries, starch beaded up on their crisp exteriors, or a simple salad of green beans, beet and carrot cubes, and avocado drizzled with mayonnaise.
Brasa's birds — Mary's organic, incidentally — are rubbed with a similar blend of garlic and spices, which give the skin a ruddy tint and a savor that penetrates to the bone. Unfortunately, on my first visit, the quarter-bird I ordered was beautiful, shiny with juice, and salted so densely I considered dipping bites in my ice water. The second meal, I must have come on a slow night, and the chicken had either been kept warm for too long or reheated. A few bites of the tough meat, and I focused all my attention on the fries, coating them with Brasa's spiky, mint-meets-thyme huacatay (a Peruvian herb) sauce and fiery rocoto mayonnaise.
While a Bay Area style of pollo a la brasa is emerging, the version at Inkas, a 4-year-old restaurant at the foot of Bernal Hill, harkens back to La Granja Azul's original version of the dish. No elaborate anatto-cumin-garlic marinades. No fancy California sides. Inkas' chicken is seasoned simply, with salt, and served with a heap of fried potatoes and a creamy aji amarillo sauce. So much of the success of pollo a la brasa clearly depends on your timing as a diner. And when I stopped by Inkas for lunch, I was lucky enough to sit down just as the cooks were pulling the first birds off the spit. When I started slicing through my half chicken ($12), the golden skin crackled, and the fat underneath melted away. I tore off a swatch and ate it like a chicken chip, then sliced into the tender meat underneath, whose juices beaded up as I cut into the chicken. The plain meat had none of the distinctiveness of the Bay Area's other Peruvian roast chickens, but it was expertly cooked. And that was enough. I ate as much as I could, and boxed up the rest to finish the moment my hunger returned.
Correction: The initial version of this story incorrectly stated the prices at Brasa. SF Weekly regrets the error.