Culinary memories are a powerful force. Everyone has a particular dish, restaurant or cuisine from their past that they can still taste in their mind's... palate? For me, one of them (and there are many) is the Peruvian roast chicken at Pio Pio on New York City's Upper East Side.
Located on an otherwise unremarkable block of First Avenue, the tiny storefront was always packed with hungry diners and a line of customers waiting for their fragrant bags of spicy take-out. The chicken made its way into our regular repertoire and I've missed the citrusy, smoky flavor that marks a good pollo a la brasa.
So I was excited to try Inka's Chicken -- the cheerful yellow mobile kitchen that set up shop on the corner of Gambell Street and Sixth Avenue. It's a limited space with a straightforward menu: four or five Peruvian specialties and an equal number of classic American street-food options.
For my first visit, I stuck to the food-truck basics, planning to have a small family party later in the week to try the chicken. My friend and I ordered a cheeseburger ($7.50), a reindeer sausage sandwich ($7) and a gyro ($8).
I'll make this short. All three options were fine, my favorite being the cheeseburger, which is a true Americana version -- a sweetish commercial bun, iceberg lettuce, tomato and American cheese. While I like an ostrich burger with three cheeses, wilted kale and caramelized bacon on ciabatta as much as the next person, sometimes I just really want this version. The reindeer sausage was pretty much identical to any of the high-quality cart-dogs you can get in downtown Anchorage during the summer months (not that there's anything wrong with that) and the gyro was tasty but standard. My companion liked the herby spread that came on the pita, though I missed the tangy zip of a traditional tzatziki. All in all, it was a satisfying lunch, but one that was probably being served up at lunchtime eateries all across town.
For our Peruvian feast later that week, I ordered a whole roast chicken ($22.50), an order of salchipapas ($7.50) and the papa a la huancaina ($5). I would have added chicarrones to my order, but they were out of them at the time of my visit. (I think I may have gotten the last of the day's chicken as well -- at only 5 o'clock -- so if you're picking up dinner, you might want to call ahead).
Driving home with the savory-smelling bag was my version of "the longest mile." I was hungry to begin with and all but ravenous by the time I got home. I had worried that my order wouldn't be enough for my family plus a friend, but I needn't have. Their "whole chicken" does not come whole. Instead, you get the chicken in fourths. When I unpacked the bags, it appeared Inka's Chicken had been secretly perfecting some sort of super-chicken. That is to say, the four parts seemed to add up to more than one chicken. I did not re-construct the bird because I'm not a food-truck Frankenstein, but it seemed like there was more meat in the container than you get from, say, a Costco rotisserie chicken.
The chicken was a memory come to life. The crisp, flavorful skin hid a juicy, firm interior. The spice rub -- heavy on the cumin (I think) and with a fresh, herby, almost grassy flavor -- was sensational. We started by taking delicate, polite slices off with a knife and fork and ended up grabbing the remains with our fingers and gnawing the meat to the bone. The traditional green sauce that comes with the chicken was delicious (though, in the future, I'll ask for extra). The creamy base is balanced by the zing of jalapenos and the freshness of a healthy helping of cilantro. This is a very versatile sauce and one I'd love to keep in my fridge (take note, Inka's!).
We were less excited about the rice and beans, though the serving was generous and lent itself well to a bit of hot-sauce doctoring. Also disappointing were the salchipapas. A serving of french fries with sliced sausage, this dish's description sounds more delicious than the reality is. The fries may have suffered from the time they spent in the plastic foam box, perhaps because they were steamed from the moisture in the sausages. The fries lacked flavor and had the mealy texture of a frozen product. However, we picked the sausages out, so it wasn't a total bust.
The papa a la huancaina, however, was a potato of a different color. That color being beige. A whole boiled potato cut into thick disks and then blanketed in a creamy, cheesy sauce, it looks, admittedly, like invalid food. But looks can be deceiving. The dish is creamy going down but has a surprising and delightful touch of heat that lingers on your tongue. The spice doesn't remove the "comfort" from this comfort food, but it definitely packs a punch. This is not your mother's potato salad. Unless, of course, your mother is from Peru.
On both visits, we were taken care of quickly and pleasantly by the same woman who took our orders, prepped, cooked and packaged our food and delivered it to us while we waited in the small outdoor seating area. It was a lovely day, but we opted not to dine al fresco. To be honest, the neighborhood does not offer a lot of ambience. We took our meals home and noticed more than a few customers eating in their cars.
Despite heroic efforts, there were a few leftovers after our chicken dinner. I ate these furtively while standing up at the refrigerator so my husband wouldn't know I was eating his share. The leftover chicken? Sorry, honey. For now, it's just a memory.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent