Ahh, the cuisines of Peru. Some of my most memorable food experiences occurred in this hospitable South American land.
Like the time we stayed over in Cuzco, high in the Andes, after a trip to Machu Picchu. Bored by our hotel’s American-style dining room, we went in search of something more authentic: pollo a la brasa — charcoal-roasted chicken, that is, modern Peru’s people’s fare. We soon found a cozy spot with a sign that read, simply, “Pollo” (“Chicken”).
The chicken was deeply flavored and juicy tender. The sizzling fries piled on top, Peruvian-style, were addictive, and I started dipping them in a community crock of mayo on our table. Mary’s eyes got as big as fried eggs. “Don’t eat that,” she hissed. “Not to worry,” said I, with a world-weary traveler’s smirk. “We’ve been in Peru for two weeks, and my tummy is used to it now.”
Within hours I was back in the hotel, wide awake, reading the “Lonely Planet” guidebook to discern whether I was going to die. It’s the mayo, stupid.
I survived, but I’m glad in a way that it was another 15 years before Louisville got its first pollo a la brasa spot, Mr. Pollo, in a bright little blue building on the back of a gritty strip-center parking lot in Hikes Point. I’m ready for it now.
It’s well worth a visit, too. Bigger than it looks from outside, the bright maize-colored room boasts seating for 40, with mural-size pictures of Lima’s cathedral and historic government palace … and Machu Picchu, of course.
Proprietors Jairzinha Fernandez, who’s from Peru and speaks English very well, and her husband, Mario, who hails from Cuba and owned a Cuban restaurant in Miami, came to Louisville from south Florida three years ago, “looking for a better place to raise our kids,” as she said last month on the LouisvilleHotBytes.com forum. On vacation in Peru, they learned the art of making pollo a la brasa and its fixins.
“In the beginning, we prepared the chicken just for the family and friends, and we saw that everybody loved it, so we thought … why not for everybody?” she wrote, “and that is how Mr. Pollo [was] born.”
The preparation, done from scratch with brining, spicing and roasting, takes two-and-a-half hours. Even the spicy-creamy aji sauces boast more than 10 ingredients, she said.
The menu is about as simple as it gets: Chicken, roasted Peruvian-style or breaded-and-fried à la gringo, comes in combo with fries and salad or Cuban black beans and rice, and costs $6.99 for a fourth of a chicken, or up to $19.99 for the whole bird.
Service is quick and friendly, and the fare was fine. The pollos a la brasa were rather small, but their flavor was large and mildly spicy, with tender skin and herb-infused meat. The black beans were savory and rich, swimming in a dark potlikker that made a tasty vehicle for the perfect, fluffy white rice. Fries were institutional but freshly fried, crisp and grease-free. The salad was fresh. Everything was served in disposable tableware, and my only complaint — a mighty small one — is that it was tough to dissect a moist chicken with lightweight plastic flatware on a Styrofoam plate.
Two quarter-chicken portions and fresh-brewed iced tea were an affordable $14.82.
Mr. Pollo Restaurant
3606 1/2 Klondike Lane
Robin Garr’s rating: 86 points