April 4, 2008

First Bites: Passport Cafe & Chicken Latino

In the span of a week, I had lunch at two restaurants I’ve been meaning to try for some time. Neither disappointed.

First came lunch at Passport Café in Wexford. This restaurant had an inauspicious beginning, restaurant review wise, that is. The relative newbie dining critic for the Post-Gazette, China Millman, in a mostly polite manner, ripped the restaurant a new one.

However, the review ran in November, when Passport Café had been open only a few months, and I’ve eaten at enough restaurants—and enough new restaurants—to understand that some times it takes some time to get things right.

And my Brazilian Chicken Salad was indeed right.

I’m not really sure what was supposed to make this dish so “Brazilian” (perhaps some soccer players with only one name made the dressing?), and I got the impression the menu didn’t exactly reflect what this particular offering actually was on this particular day.

This was chicken salad—a mixture of shredded chicken and other ingredients with something wet to bind it all together—not, as the menu seemed to suggest, hunks of roasted chicken on some form of greens.

The chicken was mixed with, among other things, raisins and shredded carrot. It was moist and had a subdued sweetness. A good bit of shoestring fries sat atop the chicken, and the entire thing rested upon a small bed of mixed greens. The dish was finished with a light coat of what I might guess was a balsamic vinaigrette, although the menu said this salad was served with a thyme vinaigrette.

The fries were delicious, although there were probably a few too many, and they were a bit oversalted. Nevertheless, the entire thing was very satisfying, and I left wanting more.

I do have to agree with Ms. Millman on one thing, though. The complimentary bread was forgettable, and that’s being generous. But the restaurant itself has a comfortable, clean atmosphere, and my meal was enjoyable. And that makes it worth a return trip.

Chicken Latino, in the Strip District, came the following Saturday. This was an entirely unplanned trip. While I had enjoyed some samples at the Farm to Table Conference, I had nothing approaching a lunch. I left well after the lunch hour and had to stop at Penn Avenue Fish Company to pick up something for dinner that night.

Chicken Latino on Urbanspoon

I could have had lunch there, but the taste memory of banh mi struck my taste buds. It was by no means cold outside, so I hoped the banh mi cart would be in its usual spot on Penn Avenue. It was not. I walked another block or two, thinking maybe gyro or chicken on a stick, and there it was, just around the bend: Chicken Latino.

Peruvian roasted chicken. Oooohhhhh. I freakin’ LOVE this stuff. My wife has on more than one occasion insinuated that I have a strange obsession with this chicken. Every time we return to D.C. to visit friends or I travel there for work, Peruvian chicken is on the brain. And that’s because, with the exception of Chicken Latino, there is not a single Peruvian chicken joint in all of Pittsburgh. D.C. is filthy with them, and, as far as I can tell, they’re all good.

For whatever reason, I had yet to make it Chicken Latino, even though I spotted it several months ago. But here I was, by myself, desperately hungry. It was time to act.

It was, perhaps the best Peruvian roasted chicken I’ve had. And I don’t think that opinion was biased by my state of hunger. The quarter chicken was ridiculously tender, and the spices that coated it were spot on. A smear of the ubiquitous spicy green sauce present in all Peruvian chicken establishments (cilantro and jalapeno, among other things? I’ve never asked) provided some added heat.

The menu at Chicken Latino is short and simple. Various options for chicken: quarter, half, whole. Yucca, black beans, coleslaw for sides. A chicken sandwich and a few others, including some weekly specials, including a tilapia ceviche on Saturdays.

Very reluctantly, I did not order any yucca fries, which is tantamount to Peruvian chicken heresy, in my view. Next time, though, there will be yucca. Oh, there will be yucca, indeed.

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