FOOD: Super Chicken vs. Crisp & Juicy: Who Wins Pollo War
Inspired by an email from a loyal reader, I’ve decided to focus this week’s column on one of the great culinary treasures of the area: Peruvian rotisserie-style chicken. Roasted on spits over dying charcoal embers and infused with a marinade heavy on salt, cumin, and vinegar, Peruvian pollo al la brasa is highly addictive.
There are innumerable chicken shacks and shops around the region, making it one of the truly iconic foods of Northern Virginia. Most of them are strategically located on busy roads because it’s almost impossible for hungry drivers not to be lured in by the aromas of dripping chicken fat. Another huge draw is the price. I have yet to run into a Peruvian chicken place that requires more than a 10 dollar bill for a gut-busting lunch.
Connoisseurs claim the place to get the best birds is at Arlington’s El Pollo Rico (map), which opened in 1989 as the first Peruvian-style chicken joint. My vote goes to Super Pollo (map) (also an Arlington institution), which boasts chicken that’s just as good and a much wider range of sides, including excellent yucca (a starchy South American root that takes well to frying) and Peruvian fried rice.
Ah, but what about the City of Falls Church? In Super Chicken (map) and Crisp & Juicy (map) we’ve got two of the most popular chicken spots in the area. How do they stack up to the gold standards in Arlington that I patronize so often?
Well, honestly, they aren’t as good.
After wolfing down a half chicken and sides from each with my Peruvian-chicken-obsessed brother I’m still adamant in my support of Super Pollo and El Pollo Rico as numbers 1 and 2 on the hierarchy. However, if you are intent on eating your chicken in the City limits, I encourage you to read the following breakdown of our Peruvian chicken duo.
Better Vibe: Super Chicken
This is no contest. A Peruvian chicken restaurant must be a claustrophobic, smoke-filled, highly aromatic hole-in-the-wall. Crisp & Juicy is spacious and clean, and the waft of chicken juices is only faint. Super Chicken is hot and cramped, with a lingering smell of charcoal that invades your nostrils. Also, the oven is right in front of you as you wait in line, so you get to watch the brave workers reach into the fires with oversized mitts to pull out dripping birds and whack them to pieces. That’s a huge plus in my book.
Better Chicken: Super Chicken
Tasted side by side earlier this week, Super Chicken’s thighs and breasts were much juicier and more heavily seasoned. Crisp & Juicy’s seemed like a dumbed down version of the real thing. One bite and my brother simply said, “This is not Peruvian chicken.” But the caveat here is that Super Chicken’s bird was also very, very salty after a few bites. I found myself still thirsting for water hours after eating it. So if you’re sensitive to salt to begin with, you might want to opt for the slightly blander birds at Crispy & Juicy.
Better Sauces: Toss-Up
Generally, Peruvian chicken places offer a spicy green sauce spiked with cilantro and hot peppers and a mellow, mustardy, mayonnaise-based yellow sauce. These are critical when all the deliciously greasy chicken skin has been exhausted and only meat remains. It must be dipped! Crisp & Juicy inexplicably offers only one sauce, a strange orange concoction that is a little spicy but thick like mayonnaise. I tried some during our tasting and thought it complemented the chicken and yucca pretty well, but I still wanted my green sauce. Super Chicken gives out both of the requisite sauces but only one was any good in our head-to-head chow down. While the green sauce gave a spicy, tangy kick to anything I dipped it in, the yellow sauce was bland and heavy. There’s no clear winner here.
Better Sides: Toss-Up
Many people like the sides at soul food joints just as much as the fried chicken and smothered pork chops. They go bananas for well-prepared collards, mac and cheese, and sweet potatoes. It’s the same deal for Peruvian chicken outposts. Expertly fried yucca, spicy fried rice, and sticky-sweet plantains are all highly sought after. Having not had all the sides at both spots, it’s difficult to say who is truly the best, but here’s what I can say: the yucca at Super Chicken is infinitely better. Crisper on the outside and creamier in the middle, it beats out Crisp & Juicy’s hands down. Too bad Super Chicken’s fried rice is over-seasoned and strangely clumpy. Complicating matters even more are the plantains at Crisp & Juicy, which are soft and sweet like they should be, if a little oily. It wouldn’t be fair to proclaim one clear winner in this category.
Better Alfajores: Super Chicken
Alfajores are buttery-sweet confections found in various parts of South America. They pair two shortbread-type cookies with a rich dulce de leche filling. Many Peruvian chicken places offer them as the lone dessert option. Crisp & Juicy’s are twice as thick as Super Chicken’s and rolled in coconut (which is usually a good thing), but they suffer from crumbly cookies and a too-dense filling. Super Chicken’s thin, humble looking specimens have a better texture and a cleaner flavor. I wouldn’t hesitate to get one every time and split it with someone else for a rich but satisfying dessert.
If I’m in the City and have a serious hankering for Peruvian chicken I’ll probably swing by Super Chicken for some chicken, yucca, and alfajores. For the most part, though, I think I’ll continue to dine at the two Arlington gems.
By Jimmy Scarano
September 18, 2009