Peruvian rotisserie chicken, a South American comfort food marinated in spices like paprika and cumin then spit-roasted in its own juices, has not always been so easy to find. Back in 2000 or so, I had to go all the way up to a strip mall on Loch Raven Boulevard in order to get my fix. Lately, though, there’s been an explosion of pollo la brasa, as the Peruvians call it, in Maryland. There’s now Peruvian chicken available all over Baltimore: at Mount Vernon at Grille Twelve24; in Northwest Baltimore near Reisterstown Plaza at El Gran Pollo II (uno is in Towson); and now in downtown Baltimore, thanks to the latest expansion by Chicken Rico (55 Market Place,  244-5734, chicken-rico.com). Started 20 years ago by a Peruvian couple, who opened their flagship restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, the local chain currently has four locations in Maryland, including a humble location on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, which has been there since 2004.
Stepping into the bright and airy new digs downtown feels like a visit to the latest Chipotle franchise. A giant menu board dominates the cavernous space, formerly occupied by the Baja Beach Club, and huge windows offer a nice vantage of the Inner Harbor. The décor, which is simple and clean, strikes a nice balance between contemporary and rustic with sleek slate floors and paneling and sturdy, wooden tables. In other words, it’s a pleasant place to enjoy a meal, though at least half of its business on a recent weekday appeared to be takeout.
In lieu of table service, you order at a long counter behind which rows of whole chickens slowly rotate on metal spits (you can also order online). Meal options vary with a quarter chicken (dark meat) with two medium sides and two sauces going for as little as $7.39, while the largest family meal—two whole chickens and six large sides—is still a bargain at $39.99. The method of cooking alone is not what makes this chicken “rico” (“delicious” in Spanish) and miles apart from that dry Boston chicken: The secret is in the sauces. The first, aji verde, made of a blend of jalapeño chilies, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, and perhaps a dab of sour cream or mayonnaise for consistency, really brings out the natural flavor of the chicken while packing some subtle heat. The mayonesa de aji, or yellow chili mayonnaise, is mellower but still incredibly flavorful. I took an employee’s suggestion and mixed the two to create something even better than the sum of its parts. Though the chicken was moist and tender, it did not have the crispy skin one expects from Peruvian chicken—it had obviously been sitting for a while—so the sauce really saved the day.
Aside from its signature dish, Chicken Rico offers several other Peruvian specialties. Lomo saltado ($11.99) is a kind of Chino-Latino stir-fry of marinated strips of beef, red onions, tomatoes, and cilantro served over a generous bed of white rice, and, in case you needed more starch, french fries. Not only is this one of those stick-to-the-ribs kind of dishes that will hold you down all day, but it also plays like a symphony of flavors in your mouth. The flank steak, well marinated in soy sauce, an ingredient you normally wouldn’t associate with Spanish food, is tender and juicy, while the vegetables provide a crunchy textural counterpoint. Chicken Rico’s version, also available with chicken instead of beef, was as good as anything I encountered in Lima, Peru. For equally filling, traditional fare, try the bistec a lo pobre ($12.99), which features a whole flank steak topped with a fried egg and served with fries, sweet plantain, and rice. The plantain stands out from the numerous sides available—including pinto beans, black beans, chickpeas, steamed veggies, corn, house salad, onion salad, pasta salad, and coleslaw—with the fried yucca coming in a close second. Thankfully, wherever fries accompany a dish, you may substitute fried yucca, which is not as dense as potato and considerably more healthy.
Chicken Rico also does burritos, subs, and salads. Its chicken burrito ($7.39), brimming with rice, black beans, lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo, cheese, and sour cream, could have used a little more chicken. Still, when smothered with that special green sauce, it did not disappoint. We thought the taco salad ($7.29) might be a lighter option, but not so. In addition to strips of chicken, you get a cornucopia of veggies—avocado, tomatoes, red onions, green peppers, corn—as well as fried tortilla strips, black beans, sour cream, and cheese. The crispy romaine lettuce underneath could be nothing more than a garnish. We passed on the subs, which come in veggie, chicken, steak or a chicken/steak combo, and are all reasonably priced between $7.29 and $7.49.
But we had to try the tres leches cake ($2.99), a Latino classic, for dessert. It didn’t look too appetizing, sitting ready-made in plastic cups in the fridge, and, unfortunately, looks were not deceiving. This cake, which featured alternate layers of dry pound cake and whipped cream that probably came from a can, proved to be the weak link in an otherwise gut-busting, finger-lickin’, and relatively inexpensive meal. Chicken Rico’s roasted birds are a welcome addition to the Inner Harbor dining options.
Chicken Rico is open Monday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. and Sunday 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.