In Seattle, when I think of Peruvian roasted chicken, I think immediately of San Fernando Roasted Chicken on Rainier Avenue. Not just because San Fernando serves juicy, fall-off-the-bone-tender meat with salted, crispy skin along with a squeeze bottle of a heavenly garlic-, jalapeño-, and cilantro-spiked green sauce that I am always tempted to sneak into my purse, but because for years it's been the only place in town to get these fragrant, roasted birds.
I have a deep fondness for San Fernando: the irregular, hand-painted red letters on the nondescript building that state, simply, "Roasted Chicken." It's a place where I love having a long lunch with a good friend, each of us tearing easily into meat and bone the way we dive into the details of our lives. What the restaurant lacks in ambience it makes up for in warmth, diversity of clientele, and odd charm. (Inexplicably, two toilets can be found sitting side-by-side in the restroom.) At lunchtime, the dining room is often occupied by workers eating alone, fortifying themselves for the afternoon ahead with french fries and a hefty quarter chicken.
So last September, when Matt and Sara Stubbs opened Big Chickie—a shiny, modern, and thoughtfully remodeled gas station serving Peruvian-style charcoal-roasted rotisserie chicken—just a few miles farther south on Rainier in Hillman City, I'll admit I was a little dubious. As a South Seattle resident, I was happy to see another restaurant open in the area, but I raised a cynical eyebrow when I saw that Big Chickie billed itself as a purveyor of pollo a la brasa. Why, when San Fernando's Peruvian owners Walter Diaz and Nancy Bautista simply billed their food as "roasted chicken" would the Stubbses, who are not Peruvian, feel the need to call it pollo a la brasa?
Because, it turns out, that's what Matt Stubbs has been calling the dish his entire life. "I grew up in the Washington, DC, area," Stubbs explains to me, "where pollo a la brasa is a relatively common restaurant offering. It's sort of like teriyaki in Seattle. There are lots of mom-and-pop pollo a la brasa places: Super Pollo, Pollo Rico, Super Pollo 2. It was my family's Tuesday night dinner."
Stubbs says he spent most of the decade he has lived in Seattle desperately missing and craving the roasted chicken of his youth. When he and his wife decided to open their own business, they "very quickly came to the decision to bring more pollo a la brasa to Seattle."
The couple spent nearly four years planning, saving, and developing recipes before Big Chickie became a reality. "We started cooking chicken on our home grill, two at a time, once a week, for at least a year and a half," Stubbs says. Ultimately, the couple settled on marinating the birds for 24 hours in a mixture of lime juice, spices, and chili before roasting them over charcoal.
It's the charcoal that makes Big Chickie's birds so good. The smell alone—unmistakably dark and smoky, with a little sweetness from charred oregano and citrus—is enough to drive you mad as you make the interminable-seeming walk from the register to one of the restaurant's tables. The smoke penetrates through the chicken's golden, crackling skin and deep into the meat.
For Stubbs, charcoal was always an essential part of the equation. "Oh, it's critical," he tells me in an alarmingly serious tone. After looking at American-made charcoal rotisseries, he chose to import machines from Peru instead, fearing the others wouldn't function as well. "Rotisseries are very simple machines—just the charcoal and the motor that turns the birds. But that charcoal smoke and the indirect heat and occasional lapping of the flames is what really gives the chicken that special flavor," says Stubbs. "It really does that magical thing."
While the flavor of Big Chickie's birds is consistently great, I can't say the same for their texture. I've been surprised by perfectly moist breast meat on one visit and then disappointingly dry thigh meat the next. I can't help but compare it to San Fernando's chickens, which, while not roasted over charcoal and thus lacking the same smoky goodness, never fail to be chin-dribblingly juicy.
There are a few other lessons Big Chickie could learn from San Fernando: the first—and most important—one being about green sauce. While San Fernando's green sauce is something I routinely fantasize about putting on everything, Big Chickie's, which also uses cilantro and jalapeños, is uninspired, lacking any real heat. Its texture also resembles more of a watery puree instead of a true sauce that begs to be used for dipping and spreading. And Big Chickie's rice and beans—bland black beans scooped over mushy yellow rice—seem especially unexciting when compared to San Fernando's astounding white beans, which are creamy and earthy and served in a bowl of their own thick, satiny cooking liquid.
But while San Fernando offers sides of french fries and a shredded iceberg-lettuce salad topped with sad tomatoes and a ranch-like dressing, Big Chickie has a creamy coleslaw, a refreshing kale and edamame salad, and a bright, crunchy corn salad with red onion and red bell pepper. It also serves thick-cut steak fries and cheesy potatoes, both of which seem to be popular with the many children who accompany their parents to Big Chickie as they pick up dinner for the family.
"This was our goal from the beginning—to be affordable, quick, and healthy," Stubbs tells me. The Stubbses always planned to open their restaurant south of I-90. It's an especially smart move as Hillman City, as well as nearby neighborhoods like Columbia City and Beacon Hill, gentrifies with an influx of new families drawn south by more affordable housing. Stubbs tells me that they have quite a few regulars who pick up dinner as they head farther south to Rainier Beach and Renton.
I thought about Stubbs's words as my husband and I ate Big Chickie for dinner the other night, in the two hours we have between coming home from work and putting our 6-month-old daughter to bed. We stood in the kitchen, taking turns holding our baby, ripping off pieces of smoky thigh meat, and feeding each other forkfuls of a lovely pea salad flavored with fresh mint. I smooshed a few peas between my fingers and offered them to my daughter, who gladly accepted.
While I will always crave a slowly savored chicken dinner from San Fernando, things change. There is room for two versions of Peruvian roasted chicken in this town and, given how satisfying and simple a meal it makes, I find myself hoping for even more.