A Peruvian Anniversary Party at Pollo Bravo

Pollo Bravo (10434B Richmond Ave.) is the only place in town I know of that makes homemade lúcuma ice cream. They're the only place I know that serves lúcuma ice cream, for that matter. The flavor is difficult to describe -- caramel custard or flan with a telltale chalkiness at the end -- and in its native Peru, lúcuma is the preferred ice cream flavor over any other.

The authentic Peruvian dessert was just one of the items we tried at Pollo Bravo's one-year anniversary party this past Friday afternoon. The little restaurant at Richmond and the Beltway also serves Mexican food and is the result of a marriage between a Mexican man and his Peruvian bride. In keeping with this multicultural aesthetic, the waitstaff are from Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador and other Spanish-speaking countries, the different accents blending together like the flavors in the Mexican-Peruvian menu.

The Pollo Bravo "chain" -- there are two other locations in Houston -- was established in 2006, but it was this charming little alcove with saffron-colored walls and a welcoming, familial atmosphere that was celebrating its first anniversary. Sandwiched between a gas station and a Jack In The Box, it's an odd location -- geographically-speaking -- to get items like outstanding rotisserie chicken, housemade chicha morada and pisco sours that would rival the creations at Anvil, but that only made me love it more.

The aforementioned chicha morada is as much a welcome anomaly here in Houston as the lúcuma ice cream. Chicha is a very traditional Peruvian fermented beverage made from maize. In the case of Pollo Bravo, the chicha morada is made from purple maize (also called choclo morado), giving it a rich purple color, the color of royalty. The ears of corn are boiled in a pot with pineapple and spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, imparting a warm taste to the cool, tropical beverage. It's taken as an aperitif before your meal, and the cozy spices have a way of stimulating your palate.

Aside from Peruvian rotisserie chicken -- moist and tender here, served with a creamy avocado salad and fragrant rice so good, they're a meal unto themselves -- Pollo Bravo has also started serving traditional Peruvian ceviche: fish (tilapia, in this case) marinated in lime juice to "cook" it and served with red onions, corn and cemote, or boiled sweet potatoes. Unlike many ceviches, the dish here is laden with enormous chunks of fish; take them into your mouth whole with a few bites of onion and let the flavor of fresh fish and citrus immerse you fully into summer without even breaking a sweat.

Although I absolutely loved the ceviche and the rotisserie chicken -- the two main dishes of the evening -- I found myself even more drawn to the simple and sturdy sides. Salted and fried slices of yuca were the perfect accompaniment to the ceviche, something that Ocean's should learn from.

The heavy, sweet maduros were pan-fried to a dreamy crisp on the outside, succulent and tender inside. And the salchipapas are the perfect answer to every inner child's dream (and every native Peruvian's homesickness): papas fritas topped with barely curled pieces of hot dog. A bright-green bowl of chicken soup heavily flavored with cilantro and pepper was delicious, and something I'll certainly be seeking out the next time I get a head cold.

The delicious array of desserts nearly broke me: alfajores far better than even the ones from my beloved Manena's pastry case, a lúcuma flan that is made even richer by the use of the custardy fruit and the sweet, earthy lúcuma ice cream, served with a delicate ladyfinger. Expect to see more of the lúcuma fruit in the coming months and years; chefs in the United States seem to just be discovering and experimenting with the stuff, as well as with other South American fruits like chirimoya. Will lúcuma one day be as prevalent as other tropical fruits like mango and papaya? I would place a pretty sizable bet on it.

As I finished my meal, I lamented to my dining companion that it wasn't closer -- until I remembered the handy location at Hillcroft and 59. It's that location that I feel is truly perfect for Pollo Bravo: adding to the rich, ethnic tapestry of the area with its palette of multi-hued, authentic, homemade Peruvian cuisine and fitting in perfectly with the low-key, friendly and -- most important of all -- affordable aesthetic that you expect from a restaurant along Hillcroft. Who says you need to pay a lot for a South American feast?

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