Apparently, 2011 is the year of the chicken shack. Back in February, Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand opened in East Atlanta offering “slingers” (hoagies) stuffed with chicken sausage and covered with a selection of creative toppings to late-night weekend revelers. Meanwhile in the bustling Westside neighborhood, former Bookhouse Pub chef and Culinary Institute of America alumna, Julia LeRoy gave birth to LeRoy’s Fried Chicken — a walk-up southern-style fried chicken shack.
But long before chicken shacks became fashionable in metro Atlanta, John Koechlin, a Peruvian native, has been quietly running Las Brasas, a tiny, two-room Decatur polleria (“chicken shop”) that smells like the Fourth of July when you pull into the parking lot. This particular shack specializes in pollo a la brasa, Peru’s national dish of chicken cooked over embers.
The method for preparing this distinctive rotisserie chicken was first developed more than 50 years ago and, interestingly enough, its creator was a Swiss ex-pat living in Peru. Roger Schuler, a Lima chicken farmer, decided he could make more more money if he converted his farm into an inexpensive restaurant. People flocked right away to his polleria, La Granja Azul (“The Blue Farm”), for chicken slow-roasted over glowing embers. But his initial roasting method could not keep up with the customer volume. So Schuler and a friend devised and patented a novel kind of rotombo (roaster) that could cook a larger volume of chicken.
“Schuler called it the planetario” Koechlin tells me. “It was inspired by the solar system and planets that spin on their own axis and around the sun.” The chickens — speared onto metal rods that spin independently and slowly over charcoal embers — produce even-cooking around the whole bird.
Before Koechlin opened Las Brasas, he wasn’t so sure he needed a planetario, and so he experimented with different cooking methods using an electric and gas powered roaster. “The results in the electric roaster tasted like baked chicken,” Koechlin relays with a grimace. “So friends told me to roast the chicken in a gas oven and place a pan of water in the bottom so it would steam and keep the chicken moist.” But Koechlin states that the moisture caused the outer rub to drip off leaving blander results overall.
So Koechlin went back to Peru and bought his own planetario. Explaining the all-important difference, he said, “I wanted the ‘fume flavors’ on the chicken that can only be achieved by its fat dripping onto the embers below.”
Koechlin uses hormone and antibiotic-free birds, ranging from three and a half to four pounds, and marinates them overnight for 10-12 hours. He then applies a salt and cumin rub all over and slow-roasts them over natural, chemical-free coals for an hour to an hour and a half. About five minutes before they are done, Koechlin closes the roaster door because this “helps color the outside.” Afterwards, the birds are removed and rested for five to ten minutes to lock in their prodigious moisture.
After the chickens rest, the kitchen quarters them. Diners can order by the quarter ($3.99 dark, $4.99 light), half ($6.99) or whole ($10.99). I have to admit that I couldn’t even make it home before I was tearing into a piece with my hands in the car. I loved the way the rendered fat coated my fingers and the crunchy, little salt granules embedded on the charred outer skin brought out the flavors. When I admitted this to Koechlin, he proudly told me, “Peruvians eat pollo a la brasa with just their fingers. I ONLY eat it with my fingers.”
Las Brasa’s version also comes with a cool, creamy Aji de Huacatay dipping sauce made with spicy Aji peppers and the minty Huacatay herb — both of which are widely used in Peruvian dishes. “I didn’t offer the sauce at first, because I didn’t think Americans would like it.” Koechlin states. “But my son convinced me that people would enjoy it, and he was right!”
There is nothing fancy about Las Brasas. On a warm day, you can take advantage of its cozy, sunny patio, which currently acts as the shack’s only dining space. But getting the pollo a la brasa for take-out and eating it at home works just as well — with or without silverware.LAS BRASAS 310 East Howard Avenue, Decatur 30030, 404-377-9121 Food: casual take-out rotisserie chicken shack Service: no table service, food is ordered at the counter Vegetarian selections: veggie wrap, sides such as corn on the cob, rice, beans, chips with avocado dip and Papas a la Huancaina — potatoes smothered with a creamy, cheese-pepper sauce Price range: $ Credit cards: Discover, MasterCard, Visa Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, closed Sundays Children: yes Parking: in lot Reservations: no Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: standard Patio: yes, only patio otherwise do take-out on a rainy/cold day Takeout: yes