You notice the wood-fire aroma the moment you walk into the new Inka Grill in Costa Mesa. It’s a campfire kind of smell, the sweet scent of carbon feeding the flames that crackle at the back of an open-ended rotisserie oven. You realize the smokiness is going to stick with you—on your clothes, in your hair—but you don’t mind. If it does this to you, think of what it’s doing to the chicken you are about to eat!
In front of this primitive, smoldering heat source, whole birds spin—or tumble, actually—on what amounts to a poultry Ferris wheel. A little fat occasionally drips off, resulting in small flare-ups. But mostly on this carnival ride to deep-brown deliciousness, they roast and rotate, slowly basting themselves with their own melted subcutaneous fat.
And it’s the skin you encounter first. With its lipid reserves thoroughly rendered out, it rustles like burnt paper when you take your knife to it. In its dark mahogany depths lurks concentrated flavor. There’s definitely cumin, a staple of Peruvian cooking, and perhaps garlic. But what else? You can’t say for sure. Whatever it is, it’s a magic rub that enters deep into the meat—which is so juicy from tail to sternum you can barely tell the dark from the white.
Then you pour on copious amounts of a green aji sauce, a blended serrano-chile concoction that Inka Grill calls “Gringo Killer” and sells for $5 per bottle. It comes free for slathering when you dine in. And as tongue-in-cheek as its title might be, consider yourself warned: It’s scorching. Your face will redden, and your brow will dampen. But against the throbbing pain, you trudge on because you won’t encounter a more perfect condiment to a rotisserie bird short of Zankou’s garlic paste. Even if you’re familiar with Peruvian food, this herby sauce—a dull green, with the consistency and color of thinned guacamole—is easily the hottest aji in OC.
Advertised on their windows in Tempera paint, the $6 chicken meal includes one-quarter of a chicken (dark or white meat), a moist mound of rice cooked with chicken broth and beans so watery they’re almost soup. Or you could substitute French fries for your starch. Either way, it’s a bargain unique to this Inka Grill. Due to ornery municipal codes, the chicken is not available at the two other OC locations. And tradition dictates that the birds need to be cooked in exactly this manner, over a wood fire.
Unlike the others, this outpost of the Peruvian chain does more takeout orders than sit-downs. But that doesn’t mean a very nice meal can’t be had here. Start with a pitcher of maracuya, a passion-fruit punch that can be gulped plain or mixed with pisco if you want alcohol.
Then move on to the appetizers. There’s choclo and cancha—textural foils of fresh corn kernels the size of Chiclets and crunchy roasted ones that shatter like CornNuts—in the bracing yellow-tinged ceviche. Take your seafood this way over anything fried; the fish in their deep-fried dish of jalea gets too soggy too quickly.
If you still insist on something from the deep fryer, opt for the two-bite empanadas. Tiny strips of steak, minced chicken, cheese and spinach hide inside the braided pastries, which are to be dunked in the juice of something citrusy and tart. Do the potatoes over the yuca if you order the huancaina, a Peruvian staple of some sort of starch topped with a fluffy, tangy paste that will remind you of a spicy cheese dip. Since it’s rarely ordered, the yuca seemed to have absorbed other flavors from the freezer.
Aguadito, the Peruvian answer to Mom’s chicken soup, is more like a chunky porridge here, and it could conceivably fill you up before you get through half the bowl. Aji de gallina has a sulphurous stench; here, it’s at its funky, unctuous best. Strips of chicken are mixed into the thick, canary-yellow gravy as if it they were ground beef in chili. You can have it plain as a side, poured on rice for a proper meal, or smothered over fries for an appetizer only a poutine-loving Canadian wouldn’t find weird.
Chifa, or Chinese-Peruvian staples, dominate the rest of the specialties. Everything from chaufa (fried rice) to saltado (meat stir-fried with French fries) to saltado with spaghetti is done well, cooked with a searing kiss of a wok, a suffusion of soy sauce and a prodigious sprinkle of the same Peruvian spices that beguiled you in their rotisserie chickens. There’s even a Peruvian nod to its Spanish conquerors in the form of intensely spiced paella that includes bits of the bottom-burnt crispy rice. Every other spoonful is a surprise of textures.
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But even as you order these things, you go back to that chicken. It’s the real reason you don’t mind coming out of there smelling like a chimney sweep.
Inka Grill Rotisserie, Chicken 562 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-4938. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Meals, $6-$11. Beer and wine.
This review appeared in print as "Get Fired Up: Costa Mesa’s new Inka Grill boasts a drool-worthy wood-fire-roasted chicken that the other locations don’t."