I’ve got to admit it: I miss the old Las Brasas shack.
The Peruvian chicken joint’s former Decatur location on East Howard Avenue was tiny; a cinderblock hut whose cheery red paint job just barely masked its shabbiness, not to mention its burglar bars.
Inside, in a space smaller than some walk-in closets (and much hotter), Las Brasas made the most transcendent rotisserie chicken. The $11 birds were brined and burnished, their skin crisped and utterly irresistible. Addictive on its own, the chicken was mind-blowing when dragged through a plastic cup of pale green sauce made from zingy peppers and huacatay leaves.
The drive home from Las Brasas was pure torture, what with the chicken wafting herbs, smoke and sizzle through the gaps in its plastic foam to-go box. But it was also an essential rite of living in this town.
Well, Las Brasas has moved on up to an oversized storefront a half-mile from its first home. There’s a spacious dining room now, a full menu and a somewhat full bar. (What it lacks in Peruvian beers, which aren’t distributed in Georgia, according to co-owner Jonathan Hartnett, it makes up for by selling 2-liter bottles of Inca Cola and, of course, frothy Pisco Sours.)
The chicken has gotten fancier, too. It’s now free-range, antibiotic-free and several dollars pricier — $15 for a whole hen and $9 for a half. Even those humble plastic foam boxes have been traded for origami’d cardboard containers.
Naturally, “improvements” like these filled the Decatur message boards with trepidation when the new Las Brasas opened in September. Could these posh Peruvian chickens have the same soul as the old ones?
Yes. The chicken is still delicious, still fall-apart tender, still saltily, greasily good.
I also liked a lot of the other dishes on Las Brasas’ slim but winning new menu.
One standout: lomo saltado, the Chinese-influenced stir-fry of beef, onions and peppers piled onto a starchilicious bed of french fries with white rice on the side. With this dish, a few extra seconds in the skillet can turn the beef to sawdust, but Las Brasas’ lomo was perfectly prepared — juicy, saucy and superflavorful.
The same can’t be said for a dish that ought to have been a citrusy explosion on the tongue — a cebiche of flounder, octopus, calamari and tiger shrimp. Though the seafood was all fresh, drenched in lime marinade and liberally scattered with red onion slivers, the cebiche lacked zip and was easy to ignore. My Peruvian dining partner and I paid more attention to the corn that flanked the platter — crunchy, rustic cancha and the giant, soft kernels called choclo.
Speaking of snacks, we tried several of Las Brasas’ small plates. For those too faint of heart to try the skewered corazon (grilled beef heart), there is pato, a duck version, with meat is so silky smooth and aromatic, it’s as if it’s doing its best to quack like a cow. Served on the side of this skewer is a homely stack of boiled potatoes and a dish of aji amarillo sauce.
Let’s pause to acknowledge this vivid yellow pepper sauce as well as its cousin, the queso-infused Huancaina sauce, not to mention that lovely green huacatay sauce. I’m obsessed with all of them. They are velvet-smooth and spicy enough to pack a punch, but mellow enough to eat with a spoon. Hartnett said there are plans to bottle and sell the stuff, and, for that, we should rejoice — and hold him to it.
Sometimes, the sauce comes on the side, as with the crispy, fluffy yucca fries and the heart and duck anticuchos. But in the potato Huancaina, the sauce is the centerpiece, blanketing a dish of potatoes, olive slices and hard-cooked quail egg wedges. The sauce zings up what could be a snoozingly simple array. Too bad it wasn’t also served with the quinoa salad side. With only a ho-hum creamy cucumber sauce to dress it, the dome of grain, olives and eggs begged to be jazzed up with some color and kick.
There were other dishes that faltered as well: a strangely gritty flan dessert; a pisco sour too aromatic of egg and a vodka-chicha morada cocktail that was both one-note and disappointingly pale. (The garish color of the purple corn-based beverage is half the fun.)
Meanwhile, the dining room’s design feels like an afterthought — like the owners tossed up a few traditional striped blankets and llamas-on-canvas and called it a day.
On the other hand, you could say such straightforward decor suits Las Brasas. Everything about this place, from the food to the service, feels welcoming, but in a matter-of-fact way. I have a hunch Hartnett and co-owner Michael Koechlin want to make their customers happy with warm, flavorful, nostalgic Peruvian food, not with bells and whistles.
Which is to say, though the good old shack is in the past, part of its plucky spirit lives on at Las Brasas.