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Pollo Bravo: Laid-Back Peruvian Food at Laid-Back Prices

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On my first visit to Latin Bites Cafe, the charming Peruvian restaurant that has taken over the former location of Ray's Franks (and, before that, Dharma Cafe), I was immediately struck by how upscale it was. I suppose I had been expecting something more along the lines of its former occupant, the little hot dog place with the horror movie-inspired menu items, or something more like Pollo Bravo.

Pollo Bravo, the subject of this week's cafe review, is almost a stark counterpoint to Latin Bites Cafe, arguably one of the finest new restaurants to come along in a while. The food at Latin Bites is excellent, the chef is skillful, the atmosphere is dim and romantic and they even let you BYOB. So why do I prefer Pollo Bravo?

Simple: It feels like home. That phrase seems to be one that I reach for time and again in my reviews, and here's why.

It feels nice to be comfortable when you eat. You can relax and enjoy the food, your friends and the conversation. At Latin Bites, my dining companion and I barely spoke above a whisper, not wanting to disturb the saintly silence in the dining room. We ate our tiny portions as if we were praying over them. And at $13 for a plate with barely enough ceviche for one person, I was starving again an hour later.

The $12.50 ceviche at Pollo Bravo will feed two people, easily. That said, Pollo Bravo does use tilapia in its preparation of the dish; I vastly prefer Latin Bites' flounder and regret that the same choice isn't available here. But that's why I usually find myself sticking to the menu items I relish: the slow-roasted Peruvian rotisserie chicken (half a chicken with two sides and a salad is only $8.99), the delicate taquitos that are lighter than a flauta, the causa rellena and its elegant tower shape, the slyly spicy aji amarillo that is placed in front of you as soon as you sit down.

It's in these areas that Pollo Bravo shines.

Where it also shines is in the sense of comfort you get when slipping behind a wooden table in the saffron-hued dining room, being greeted by name -- likely by owner Maribel Bravo -- after only one visit and listening to the lively conversations of the Mexicans and Peruvians that pack Pollo Bravo's lovely Richmond location each day at lunch.

The location has also recently straightened out some initial problems it had with its liquor license, which means that the ruby-colored sangria -- housemade, just like everything else here -- is now back on the menu. You can also get Peruvian beers here, such as Cristal and Cuzqueña (sorry, no Pilsen). I'm hoping this means they'll also bring back the killer pisco sour I first tried there many months ago; fingers crossed.

Of course, none of this means that I'm discounting Latin Bites. I'm happy to have two Peruvian places in town to choose from (aside from that wonderful old stalwart, Lemon Tree): one for date night, and one for lunch with friends.

For more photos from Pollo Bravo's dining room and kitchen, check out our slideshow.

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