Roasted chicken is one of the great ubiquities of the food world. Its pleasures can be found in French bistros and fast-food joints, in neighborhoods from Georgetown to Langley Park. You can sit down to a fussily prepared poulet rôti served on china with a white-wine-and-pan-juices reduction or you can stand at a counter and watch a sweaty guy with a Blessed Virgin medallion around his neck whack a rotisserie chicken in half with a cleaver and toss your portion onto a Styrofoam plate.
Despite its prevalence, roasted chicken is not some poultry Pop-Tart. You can’t just stick it in the oven, set the temperature, and stand back for an hour. Overcook a chicken, and the meat turns to cotton. Underseason it, and the whole thing might as well be fed to the dog. Because the path to perfect roasted chicken—you know: crispy, aromatic skin; meat that oozes salty, fragrant juices—is filled with enormous sinkholes, I wanted to understand how a Styrofoam-plate place like El Pollo Rico can consistently turn out hundreds of juicy birds a day. But more than that, I wanted to compare El Pollo Rico’s $5.90 half-bird with Palena Cafe’s $12 version to determine where, if at all, the low-end roasted chicken meets the high-end.
Frank Ruta and Ann Amernick’s Palena Cafe serves a number of upscale comfort foods—an organic hamburger with truffled cheese, for example—in a spare and arty Cleveland Park space designed to recall the Italian Renaissance. The El Pollo Rico outlet in Wheaton is dominated by the heat and smell—and the smoke—of the two rotisserie ovens blazing away behind the ordering counter. The narrow restaurant, owned by Peruvian brothers Francisco and Juan Solano, favors function over aesthetics: The staff is there to serve you orders of quarter, half, and whole roasted chickens, not to answer your questions about marinades.
Ruta, a former White House chef, believes that “everything” affects the taste and texture of a roasted chicken. “I think it’s what the bird’s been fed,” he says. “I think it’s the age of the bird. I think it’s the breed of the bird.” So he purchases free-range, hormone-and-antibiotic-free chickens, mostly from Giannone Poultry, a Canadian operation that cools its slaughtered birds with air instead of with water, which is the method commonly used in the United States. The latter practice causes the bird to absorb water—as much as 8 percent of its body weight. As the liquid evaporates during cooking, the chicken shrinks, losing some of its own natural juices in the process.
Once these whole birds arrive at Palena Cafe, the cooks remove the backbones, secure the wings and legs, and marinate them for at least three days. The marinade is a meticulously measured blend of liquid, vegetables, herbs, and spices that can include fennel tops, carrots, spring garlic, celery, cinnamon, and star anise. But the real key to the recipe is salt. “For all intents and purposes,” says Ruta, “this is extremely similar to a brine.”
The terminology here is less important than the liquid’s function. Salt, as the curing process has taught us, removes water from meats; it does the same thing in a brine—at least at first. But when meat is soaked for several hours, the salt begins to penetrate muscle-cell walls. As Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, noted in a Washington Post column a few years ago, when brining birds was all the rage among home chefs, “those salt ions make the meat’s protein molecules bind water more tightly, so more water is attracted into the cells. Voila! More juice.” Unlike the water from a cooling bath, this moisture is here to stay.
The Solanos prefer not to talk in detail about their prep practices—even if El Pollo Rico’s chicken spills the secret with every moist, salty bite. Neither Francisco nor his nephew Ivan Solano, who helps run the Arlington location, knows what kind of chickens they buy. Ivan suggests that one of the restaurant’s distributors might know, so I call Holly Poultry in Baltimore, which says that El Pollo Rico purchases lower-priced birds from industrial farmers who follow the standard water-cooling procedures of U.S. producers.
El Pollo Rico’s secret for keeping its chickens juicy seems to be a house-made marinade, which the birds soak in for 24 hours before hitting the charcoal-burning ovens. What’s in it? “We don’t give that away,” says Ivan. But all signs point to a salty marinade that, like Ruta’s, is spiked with herbs and spices. How else to explain the layers of moisture in a factory-farm bird?
It would be rank drama, of course, to suggest that the birds coming out of the ovens at the two restaurants are exactly the same. The skin on Ruta’s chicken is far crisper, its texture closer to the thin, crackly skin of a pan-fried fish. And while Ruta’s Eurocentric bird leans heavy on fresh thyme these days, El Pollo Rico’s South American version tastes of smoke and pepper and oregano. But here’s the thing: The meat of both is moist to the bone.
Some professional chefs, Ruta says, might consider brining something of a cheat. But both of these restaurants juice their birds honestly, not by injecting marinades under the skin like at Pollo Campero. It’s a method that works. It even transforms cheap raw birds into first-class roasted chickens.
Palena Cafe, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW,(202) 537-9250.
El Pollo Rico, 2541 Ennalls Ave., Wheaton, (301) 942-4419; 932 N. Kenmore St., Arlington, (703) 522-3220.—Tim Carman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.