ALISON COOK AT 2:08 PM ON OCTOBER 31, 2012
Think of the Pollo Bravo mini-chain as mom-and-pops, Houston style.
Mom Maribel Bravo is Peruvian; Pop Enrique Bravo is Mexican. The food at their four homey rotisserie-chicken spots — including a new one that recently opened on the Rice Military end of Memorial Drive — is a blend of both cultures.
The Bravos bill them as “hybrid Peruvian-Mexican restaurants,” which makes them uniquely suited to our increasingly hybrid city, where cultural cross-currents and borrowings make the food scene dynamic. Such were my thoughts as I sat at the latest Memorial Drive shop, converted from a Hartz Chicken outlet, dunking crackly little Peruvian-chicken-stuffed taquitos into a creamy, electrifying green sauce that makes the sacred Ninfa’s archetype seem like mere baby food.
The whole $9.99 plateful was gorgeous when it hit my unclad wooden table. On a square yellow plate bordered in flowers and leaves sat four little tacos rolled tight as cigars, each painted carefully with ribboned tomatillo sauce and sour cream, a light snow of Monterey Jack shavings drifting on top, where it slowly melted to a delicate mesh. To one side sat a salad crowned with avocado slices, nudged up against the sweet fried plantains I had swapped out for the regulation French fries.
That late lunch (or was it an early supper?) tasted as good as it looked.
The taquitos delivered the brisk crunch of finely made flautas. Their shredded-chicken filling shone rich and clear through the light-handed gilding of sauces and cheese. The sweet-tartness of the plantains — their deeply caramelized edges like some brittle, sticky candy — contrasted keenly with the taquitos’ savor. (So keenly, in fact, that I recommend you order the sweet fried plantains without fail here, whatever else you’re having.)
Even the iceberg lettuce salad passed muster, crisp and jumpy with a sharp vinaigrette, lashed with color: red cabbage, red onion, carrot and those all-important avocado slices. I’ve eaten variants on that salad in a slew of Central and South American restaurants, and this one did its job, which was mostly textural, better than most.
I sucked down a watery-tasting chicha morada — the Peruvian purple-corn-and-pineapple beverage that’s the equivalent of Mexican aguas frescas — wishing the clovey spices had more depth and thinking that Houston’s recent flowering of Peruvian places had turned me into a chicha morada snob.
Then, because I was having such a pleasant time in this modest little room with its persimmon-colored walls, folk-arty Peruvian landscape paintings and snug small bar, I ordered the house-made lucuma ice cream for dessert. Three yellow scoops arrived in a fluted goblet, tasting of that distinctive maple/sweet potato blend that is the calling card of this fibrous South American fruit.
That lucuma ice cream tasted like Thanksgiving. I’m putting it in my holiday pantheon right along with the sweet-potato pie flavor at Hank’s Ice Cream.
My whole experience at the Memorial Drive shop set the standard for subsequent visits to the Richmond and Hillcroft Pollo Bravo locations. The food was consistently good, the prices reasonable, the table service fast and friendly, the surroundings warm and lovingly detailed.
In short, Pollo Bravo is head and shoulders above most chicken joints. These are wonderfully useful restaurants for takeout, a quick meal on the go (attested to by lots of working guys swigging yellow Inka Kola, the Peruvian national soft drink), or a more relaxed meal with the family (attested to by numerous groups speaking Spanish and English, their tables shoved together to accommodate multiple generations).
I like just knowing I can duck in for a whole rotisserie chicken to go, the plump birds hacked into quarters moist and steamy under their deeply bronzed skins. The spice rub that makes them “Peruvian” is low key, probably a mix of paprika and cumin and salt, a little garlic and maybe a dash of vinegar. It leaves the skin irresistible: not crisp, but taut with a rich tack to it, so that stripping it off and just eating the meat would be a sin.
I even approved of the white meat on Pollo Bravo chickens I’ve sampled, although I am a dark-meat person all the way. At $10.99, these Peruvian chickens cost more than your basic grocery store rotisserie bird, but they’re much better, and Pollo Bravo offers some combo packages with sides that make the cost for a meal quite affordable.
Not to mention that you go home with little plastic tubs of that galvanic green sauce. It seems to be a mayo-based blend of Peruvian aji peppers and some fierce green Mexican chiles, and boy, is it fun to eat. Just remember that a little goes a long way and that you should start out tasting your chicken and chicken dishes plain to enjoy their subtleties before going on to the hot-sauce zone.
For a sit-down meal, it’s hard to beat the ingenious chilaquiles verdes plate I sampled at the Richmond location, a sort of make-your-own green chicken chilaquiles affair that combines a quarter chicken with a lovely soft heap of pan-fried corn tortillas swaddled in tomatillo sauce, sour cream and squiggles of Jack cheese.
You coax off strips of chicken and skin to eat with forkfuls of the tart-hot tortilla casserole, alternating with gently earthy stewed pinto beans and exclamation points of green hot sauce. For my money, this is one of the best plates of food in town — not to mention an example of culinary hybridization at its finest.
I was less enamored of the quesadillas de pollo I tried at the Hillcroft shop. It was a textural thing: inside the folded corn-tortilla half moons, which had been fried just to a light exterior crisp, was a thick cache of chicken that had been rather too thoroughly minced, so that the effect was dryish and crumbly. I kept wishing that the Bravos had chosen to use the kind of moist strips I had torn off that quarter chicken to add to the chilaquiles.
But that’s a quibble in light of the overall goodness of the chicken program at Pollo Bravo.
Assorted non-chicken Peruvian specialties are offered, but I am spoiled enough by our Peruvian spots that the prospect of ceviche made with bland farmed tilapia or lomo saltado made with frozen waffle fries did not tempt me.
I did check out the causa rellena, that layered Peruvian mash-up of mashed potato and chicken salad, and while I found it serviceable, it had none of that mayonnaise-and-aji-amarillo-laden voluptuousity displayed by the version from Chuyo’s Peruvian Deli in League City. Nor did the chicha moradas I tried equal Chuyo’s, although one afternoon’s tumblerful at the Richmond location was better than my two samples from the Memorial Drive store.
Yet it’s a measure of the ways in which my Pollo Bravo visits surprised me that one night, at the Hillcroft restaurant, I sipped a frothy Pisco Sour that was in every way the equal of those served at our city’s fancy cocktail meccas, from its graceful texture and meticulous balance of the tart with the sweet, to the way the potent grape-brandy edge of the Pisco came out to play with the dots of bitters on top. It was 7 bucks and worth it.
Curiously, this classic Peruvian cocktail is only offered at the Hillcroft location. The other locations offer sangria, a few wines by the glass and a selection of Mexican and Peruvian bottled beers. But the Richmond restaurant, the largest and fanciest of the lot — where a big wall mural urges customers “Don’t miss the Pisco Sour!” — doesn’t make them.
The new Memorial Drive spot, where the Bravos have made their beachhead inside the Loop, seems like a good bet for offering Pisco Sours, and I hope things work out that way.
In the meantime, however, I plan to use the latest store as a convenient source of some of the best alfajores I’ve ever tasted. These short-crusted cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche and dusted with powdered sugar offer high-contrast textures that I found riveting: sandy on the cookie end, sticky on the filling end.
Although I didn’t care for the stodgy pionono cake roll or the heavy lucuma flan, those alfajores haunt me. I’ve decided there are few sights sadder than an empty alfajores tray at Pollo Bravo, powdered sugar ridging the blank surface like some mournful topography seen from a plane window.
But then, there are few smells more cheerful than a car driving homewards with a whole Pollo Bravo Peruvian chicken scenting the interior. So there’s that.Source: Houston Chronicle