If Chicken Rico doesn't really have any competition in Baltimore, it could be because of how consistently good its food has been since its opening five years ago. Already, Chicken Rico feels like one of those perpetually busy places like Attman's Delicatessen or Faidley Seafood, places that earn loyal customers by serving them something reliable and good but never feel stale or institutional. What they share is the feeling that the people working there care.
A first visit to Chicken Rico can be bewildering, but the same could be said of Attman's and Faidley's. You'll find whatever language barrier you meet here to be negligible and easily negotiated, but the menus posted over and behind the ordering counter are confusing. And because things move fast here, placing an order quickly can feel like a matter of great urgency. So just order a chicken. A half a chicken, served with two sides, is more than I could finish, but then I had something left for lunch the next day.
It's the choosing of the sides that can rattle a person. So, just order the plantains and some fried rice. Or just point to something in one of the bins. Frankly, not all of the sides are spectacular - the corn on the cob is pasty, and yucca is too subtle for me - think of the sides as things to help you absorb some of the chicken's assertive vinegar and spice.
With your tray loaded up, you find an empty table, sit down, and do what everyone here does - rip into your chicken. I like eating here. The furnishings are very basic, and it can get very loud, especially when the room starts to fill up with families. But it's all smiles, and the continual sound of fresh-off-the-spit chickens being hacked into halves and quarters takes on a pleasing rhythm.
Chicken Rico has other food, too, and you'll see when you look around that many customers have moved beyond the chicken into other traditional Peruvian dishes. They are worth checking out. There is a wonderfully turned-out version of fried trout, with a delicately seasoned coating and very white, very moist flesh inside. Bistec al pobre is Peru's entry into the international astonishing food pileup competition, with sunny-side-up eggs perched atop a freshly seared sirloin strip, accompanied by grilled onions, served with french fries and a timbale of rice.
Lomo saltado is a slightly more restrained beef dish, an Asian style stir-fry of marinated beef and vegetables, served with fried rice and an ear of Peruvian giant white corn.
On weekends only, Chicken Rico serves Peruvian-style ceviche, one version with fish only and another with seafood. The presentation of Peruvian-style ceviche, which includes a hunk of cooked sweet potato and some form of corn (here toasted giant white corn kernels) is something to see, even if the fish itself will be too salty for most tastes.
Many customers find it hard to resist Chicken Rico's soda case, ending up with a can of Diet Inca soda or a bottle of Dona Isabel Chicha Morada, a beverage made from purple corn. There is a menu of subs and sandwiches, too, and, really, the chicken and beef burritos here are spoken of with almost as much enthusiasm as the rotisserie.
Desserts are gooey things like arroz con leche or mazamorra morada, a glutinous pudding made from purple corn and cherries. Oddly, they're just what you want.
•Lomo saltado - $8.99
•Bisteca al pobre - $11.99
•Fried trout - $8.50
•Ceviche - $9.99
Hours: 7 days, 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, Amex, Discover
Appetizers: $1.75 - $2.75
Entrees: $5.99 - $12.75
[Outstanding: **** Good: ***
Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]