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Restaurant Reviews

Peruvian Pluck in Pembroke

As I walked into La Granja Pollo a la Brasa, my eyes were drawn toward a sizable rotisserie with dozens of rotating chickens. The fat from the birds' skins was hissing and spitting about, and the robust roasting aromas pervaded the room. The sight reminded me of a somewhat ominous statistic I had recently stumbled upon, one that sent goose bumps up my arms:

There are currently more chickens in the world than people. That's right: The little cluckers outnumber us, and if you've ever seen the flick Chicken Run, you know what that can lead to. I suddenly envisioned my dining party and myself spinning upon skewers in an even larger rotisserie, a lineup of chickens in cheap suits drooling at us as they ambled past.

Perhaps I should note that I often get a bit paranoid when too much time has elapsed between lunch and dinner. Luckily, La Granja got some food into me fast, and admirable fare at that. It was as easy as grabbing a red plastic tray and sliding down a cafeteria-style line, taking a peek at the steam table items in front as I passed (mostly starches -- meals come from the kitchen), glancing up at the yellow plastic menu with red letters, making my choices, and, at the end of the short journey, paying a small price for the big flavors to come.

This Pembroke Pines La Granja is the most recent for the small chain, which includes ten locations. The first opened in Aruba in 1993, and since then, restaurants have opened in Kendall, Margate, Lake Worth, Orlando, Tamarac, and Hollywood. Once you taste the Peruvian-style chicken, or, for that matter, the vigorously seasoned beef, pork, and fish dishes, you'll see why this flock of restaurants keeps increasing.

Most of La Granja's outlets are marked by bright-yellow, fast-foody signs emblazoned with a cartoon chicken character. The exterior of the Pembroke location is lower key, just red letters spelling out the lengthy name. The inside doesn't appear particularly chain-like either -- not plastic and sterile-looking like other places of its ilk. With wooden tables and wooden booths, La Granja mimics instead a traditional family-style neighborhood restaurant -- not attractive but not unattractive to the point of distraction.

Rotisserie chickens rule the roost here -- La Granja Pollo a la Brasa (which translates to "farm chicken on the rotisserie"), after all, suggests the signature status of the dish, and the sheer sizzle and smell of those birds pretty much ensure that they'll outsell anything else. Plus, word has likely gotten out that these are far tastier than anything the large chicken chains churn out. Maybe the difference lies in the marinade -- I say maybe because management is tight-lipped when it comes to revealing ingredients. I can attest to there being citrus undertones to the moist meat, and the bronzed skin comes highly seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin, and whatever else they may put on.

Pork tenderloin and sirloin steak -- sold in pound ($13.50) or half-pound ($8.95) portions -- are imbued with lusty flavors from the grill. As with all entrées, the accompaniment comes down to either French fries, salad, or rice and black beans. Regardless of which side you choose, make certain to ask for an order of crisp, chunky yucca fries. They're delicious by themselves but better when splashed with one of the cold sauces that come in plastic squeeze bottles atop every table. The yellowish one is creamy garlic dressing, for the salads; the red one a spicy red-chili sauce; the green is a piquant green pepper made with the Peruvian herb huacatay. Either of the latter two work well with the yucca and likewise invigorate the meat and chicken. There are also three giant pans of varying onion salsas in a cart by the entrance, just across from the spinning chickens: a white mix of seasoned onions, a red one spiked with red chile and herbs, and a green mix with huacatay and garlic.

Nothing from squirt bottle, salsa cart, or God's Earth could invigorate, or shall I say resuscitate, a pair of pork chops cooked very well done. Peruvians prefer their pork pinkless, and that's fine, but these chops were sliced so thin that they resembled disks and were so desiccated that it occurred to me they might be enjoyable as a sort of pork jerky to chew on while drinking beer and watching a ball game.

Cubes of beef that comprised most of a lomo saltado specialty were a bit overcooked too but terrifically tasty tossed with onions and big juicy wedges of softly braised tomato in a savory brown, cumin-flecked sauce (those tomatoes and onions were the only vegetables we encountered during our visits). The lomo comes from the kitchen in a large, wok-sized pan, with rice and French fries, and is meant to be shared by three or four people. Meals here are hearty.

I usually shy away from requesting seafood in establishments that specialize in chicken and meat, but an order of "fish with spicy sauce" proved to be the biggest hit at our table. The thin filet of grouper was fresh and cleanly fried, then coated with a bright, saffron-colored sauce as silky smooth and refined as you'd find in a fancy French restaurant -- the sauce gets its color from a piquant Peruvian yellow pepper. The same grouper filet comes capped with garlic sauce, and criollo style, which translates to stewed tomatoes and onions on top. For $2.50, you can get a couple of shrimp and bay scallops to garnish your fish that lend additional textures, if not much extra flavor.

Two dollars and fifty cents is a ridiculously low surcharge for even a small sprinkling of shellfish, but La Granja's prices are like that. A whole chicken, with sides, is $11.50; any of the seafood dishes, also with sides, are $8.50. The same chicken, pork, steak, and fish items are available as more complete dinners as well, meaning with rice, beans, fried plantains, and soda, for $7.95 to $8.75. Lunchtime prices are even more absurd, the same three-sides-and-soda deal ranging from $2.99 to $6.50.

In the midst of the unusually large feast at our table, one of my guests noted that there was no bread. He was right, but that's the last thing anyone wanted -- the rice, French fries, roast potatoes, and fried plantains were enough starch. The lack of any coffee after the meal, on the other hand, was clearly more troubling, though we were encouraged to head just a few storefronts down the strip mall for cafecitos from another chain that gets around, Latin American Grill. We did just that and returned to La Granja to try their trio of desserts: flan, the dulce de leche-filled cookies called alfajores, and a slice of white cake rolled with dulce de leche (pionono). Not the most exciting lineup of post-dinner treats, but each was fresh and adeptly prepared. There were also half a dozen batidos, or fruit shakes, made with papaya, pineapple, bananas, or a berry-potent strawberry that was especially refreshing.

I recommend La Granja Pollo a la Brasa for a rewarding, affordable meal. Concerning a more important matter, namely the survival of our species: I advise that you make plenty of babies and eat as many chickens as possible.

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Lee Klein

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