Tasty poultry done the Peruvian way at Chicken Rico

Highlandtown restaurant broils birds over hot coals

Eats: dining reviews, Hot Stuff

February 24, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At first glance, the stretch of Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown doesn't look like much. The largest stores are discount emporiums that look like they've seen better days.

On closer inspection, though, things aren't so bad. The North Pole Ice Cream Co., which opened recently, serves hot meals as well as ice cream from a cozy, brightly painted location. Retro Mart, a store selling funky '50s-style furniture and knickknacks, opened in 2003.

And then there's Chicken Rico, one of the brightest spots on the street with a colorful painted sign out front and a clean, sunny interior. Put simply, the Peruvian-style charcoal-broiled birds at this cafeteria-style eatery are some of the most moist, flavorful chicken around. They taste of cumin and black pepper. The skin, roasted to a succulent crisp, lifts easily from the steaming-hot, juicy flesh.

The key to creating these remarkable birds, apparently, is cooking the chickens on turning spits over glowing hot coals. The brick ovens where this takes place are visible behind the counter. As you wait for your order, you can watch the chickens drip with juices as they turn.

The restaurant, which opened in August, is part of a modest chain of Chicken Rico restaurants in Virginia owned by Peru native Fernando Sanchez. (Not to be confused with Pollo Rico - that's a different chain.)

The interior is simply decorated, but with its tile floors and small wooden tables, it feels spacious. You order at the counter, grab your own sodas from the cooler and bus your own tables. Cutlery is plastic, plates are foam or paper. Spanish-language music videos play on the small television.

Chicken Rico serves burgers, tuna subs and a smattering of other sandwiches, but I recommend sticking to the chicken. A Cajun fish sandwich on a hearty roll suffered from a less-than-fresh flavor, poorly masked by a coating of artificial-tasting spice.

Even the chicken burrito was oddly bland. The fat tortilla was stuffed with lettuce, peppers and flavored rice and beans studded with tiny chunks of chicken. But there was too much of the rice and beans and not enough of the other ingredients. The burrito would have been better with the guacamole and sour cream that I had requested, but that failure was the only glitch in service that was otherwise just fine.

Still, the thing to order is the Chicken Rico Platter.

For a perfectly reasonable $7.25, you'll get half a chicken, three sides and a can of soda. After you order, a server behind the counter will grab one of the scalding-hot chickens off its skewer and bring it to a cutting board.

He'll cut the twine trussing the legs together, then, probably with a smile, he'll grab a cleaver and cleanly hack the bird into four pieces. He'll put a breast and a leg on your plate, then steer you toward the chaffing dishes of sides so you can see your choices.

If you order fried plantains, you'll get a large foam cup overflowing with luscious slices, sweet, warm and still firm. The starchy yucca is battered and fried, giving it a delicious greaseless crunch, and the french fries are fat and golden brown. Other choices include chicken fried rice, coleslaw, salad and mashed potatoes.

No desserts are sold at Chicken Rico, but that's OK. The North Pole Ice Cream Co. is only a short walk away.

Chicken Rico

Where: 3728 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown

Call: 410-522-2950 or 410-522-2951

Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Credit cards: all major

Prices: Sides $1.25-$2.75, sandwiches and platters $4.50-$7.25

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

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