Midtown East is not exactly the "go-to" area for your weekend dinner - it's got many good weekday lunch places but the area is pretty dead on weekends. I was stuck at work on one Sunday night - and was browsing through the Internet for dinner places. FYI, my typical process of choosing a place is going through different cuisines and narrow down by customer review ratings...silly but it has worked quite well thus far. So that night, just happens that the Peruvian cuisine option caught my attention, which brought back all the fond memories of my trip to Peru way back in 2003.
It's been almost 10 years since I've been to Peru - but I remember vividly, sitting in a bustling local restaurant with my local friends, chowing down on a rotisserie chicken, crispy french fries, spicy green sauce and a side of fresh salad. It was too good - couldn't eat fast enough, I was double fisting the chicken and french fries, occassionally downing ice cold coke...I had no idea what the name of that chicken dish was until I...Googled it. I literally googled "Peruvian chicken" and boom, the Peruvian rotisserie chicken is actually called "Pollo a la Brasa". I ended up going to Flor de Mayo where I had this amazing Peruvian style rotisserie chicken.
Apparently, I am not the only one in New York who's crazy about Pollo a la Brasa. http://www.tierraunica.com/tierra_unica/2008/09/new-yorker-go-crazy-over-peruvian-wood-rotisserie-chicken---gringos-a-la-brasa-en-manhattan.html
Tonight, I was once again craving for Pollo a la Brasa and was going to hit up the same place, Flor de Mayo. Out of curiosity, I looked at Zagat.com's customer reviews on Flor de Mayo and found this rather pointed review by Sarah B.:
So I decided to try Pio Pio and see, feel, smell, taste what it's all about. Pio Pio first started out in Queens and is considered by many to have contributed to NYC's Pollo a la Brasa craze. It is now a large franchise with restaurants all over NYC. Tonight, I went to its Upper East Side location, located on First Avenue, between 90th and 91st Street.
Its exterior decor was rather simple (though I haven't been to its other locations) and it was definitely quite small. They didn't seem to take RSVP so keep this in mind if you are going with a group of people - it's a very small place...I did like the fact that the restaurant is Grade A restaurant hygiene inspection rating. I had to wait for about 15 minutes. I also noticed that there were regulars who stopped by and ordered takeaway - they also deliver so I may do that next time when I'm feeling lazy...
Their interior was also simple, it was cozy. Tables were quite cramped in together especially toward the second half of the restaurant toward the kitchen (the layout is a railroad style one). Nothing special about their interior. I would have preferred more authentic, local Peruvian restaurant atmosphere with their typical run-down decor, fans blowing on your face, bustling place packed to the brim, loud Peruvian music in the background with people moving in and out of the restaurant all around you. After all, this is a Peruvian restaurant located in Upper East Side - the atmosphere was rather subdued and there were many families with kids dining.
I liked their no-nonsense menu. It was simple and had only two pages with their main dishes (Pollo a la Brasa or "Chicken Pio" as they call it) in a large font so you don't miss it. However, I soon found out they may have omitted some crucial information from the menu. I ordered their famous Chicken Pio with Avocado Salad and Papas Fritas on the side and ice cold coke to wash it all down.
About five to ten minutes passed and my waiter brought out my order - the chicken looked AMAZING - but the problem was, why did he bring out two orders of Chicken Pio?! I told my waiter I only ordered one Chicken Pio - he then told me that one Chicken Pio is one whole chicken rotisserie! and that he split the whole chicken into two halves. Watch out when you go to Pio Pio, don't order Chicken Pio by yourself. Make sure you ask to have a 1/4 or 1/2 Chicken Pio otherwise you are going home with a doggy bag, which is what I ended up doing with the other half of my Chicken Pio.
The chicken looked fantastic, and it was indeed tasty. It was cooked just right, the meat was tender and their Avocado Salad was superb - very fresh ingredients. I didn't like their french fries all that much - it was rather too chunky for my taste, and it was not crispy at all. I would say their Chicken Pio was good, but it didn't have that authentic Pollo a la Brasa taste to it - the seasoning was not quite there, and it was not nearly succulent enough to be called Pollo a la Brasa. I had equally tasty rotisserie chicken at Boston Market, and I am not kidding.
Their Aji sauce, which is a Peruvian spicy sauce, was not spicy enough and the recipe seemed altered to cater to the Upper East Side community - there was no spice to be found, and I would rather have Chipotle spicy sauce over Pio Pio's Aji sauce. Pio Pio's Aji sauce was too dull - Aji sauce is supposed to spice things up with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and hot peppers. This was rather disappointing.
All in all, my dinner came out to be about $33 - but considering I mistakenly ordered one whole chicken, this dinner should be around $17 per person if you were to split the chicken in half. Price wise, it's very reasonable. My checkout time took a bit too long - the waiters looked flustered at times and there were literally 6 bills to be processed at the counter stacked up. The service was not really existent - it's simply you order, they take your order and they give you the food, no-nonsense. There was no happy banter, exchanges or anything - so if you are looking for good service, this place is not really the place for you.
In Summary: Flor de Mayo gets my vote over Pio Pio, no doubt. I prefer Flor de Mayo's rather old school decor, the service was much better at Flor de Mayo where my waiter was more friendly. And ultimately, the battle came down to who's got the better Pollo a la Brasa - I would say, Flor de Mayo. In comparison, Pio Pio's Chicken Pio was not tender enough, not succulent enough, not seasoned properly - their french fries were rather soggy and definitely not crispy. I really liked Pio Pio's Avocado Salad though.
I will post my full review of Flor de Mayo in the future - may not be too long until I crave for more Pollo a la Brasa!