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Pollo Inferno

August 26, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Not unlike Los Angeles, Lima is filled with grilled-chicken restaurants of every size and description, elegant chicken places in the tony Miraflores district and dumpy ones out by the airport, drive-through chicken and tuxedo-service chicken, even a chicken joint built for some reason in the shape of a giant cat. In Plaza San Martin, the traffic-choked square at the heart of downtown Lima, the most crowded restaurant seems to revolve around a giant, circular fire pit, like an oversize Jacuzzi filled with coals, over which turn hundreds of chickens, skewered and spinning, crisping over the hardwood heat.

Peruvian poultry tends to be fed on fish meal, which, unmasked, lends a strange, fishy tartness to its flesh, so Peruvian-style chicken, even more than El Pollo Loco-type Mexican birds, is usually marinated with some fairly strong stuff--citrus, spices, aji mirasol --that drives out not only the fishy taste but the factory-farm insipidity of the meat. Peruvian chicken is pretty good in Peru; it may be even a little better here.

The best of the Southland's Peruvian-chicken specialists may be the South Bay's El Pollo Inka chain. At the original Lawndale El Pollo Inka, there are crowds lined up to get in and live Peruvian music on weekends. But the Gardena location is the wildest-looking, with a llama-encrusted bas-relief of Machu Picchu that bursts out of the wall, and a bathroom sign that pulses with a varicolor glow, and a vast, dark back dining room painted with a wraparound black-light mural of Lima's Plaza de Armas. The stereo plays all the usual Andean panpipe hits--after three weeks in Peru, if I never hear "El Condor Pasa" again it will be one time too many--but fortunately, it does not play them too loud.

Out front, there's a glass-front brick fire pit heaped with logs, flames leaping three feet into the air and a sort of Ferris wheel thing hauling chickens through the inferno. You can't see the pit from the dining room, which is probably a good thing, but you can see some of the cars speeding by on the 91 slow up a little as they spot the leaping flames--from 50 yards away, it looks as if the restaurant is on fire--and then continue on, a little hungrier, when they notice a cook threading another long skewerful of birds onto the rotisserie.

El Pollo Inka is definitely a big-city restaurant, its menu filled with seafood dishes typical of Lima's industrial port suburb Callao, including the vaguely Chinese-influenced dishes of the area's many chifa joints (fried rice, chow mein, a wonderfully smoky stir-fry of beef, vegetables and French fries called lomo saltado ), but minus expense-account Lima's fancy Europeanized sauces and the spicy tuber-based stews of Peru's Andean plain.

El Pollo Inka's papa a la Huancaina , a famous dish of potatoes with cheese sauce that can be very nice when made correctly, is sort of clammy and unpleasant here, like Cheez Whiz 'n' spuds. But the restaurant's ocopa --cold potatoes sauced with a creamy puree of walnuts, cheese and olive oil--is terrific.

You will find big plates of ceviche here, fresh, raw fish marinated in lime juice and hotly spiced with pureed chiles, served with the typical Limeno accompaniments of potato, sweet potato and corn. The delicious jalea involves crisply fried whitefish fillets garnished with a sort of Peruvian pico de gallo , a citrusy chop of tomatoes and red onions; sudado --"An Adventure of the Deep Sea!" it says on the menu--is a tomato-based seafood stew thick with shrimp and clams and tentacled things. The fish soup parihuela is close to the classic version, dark and as pepper-hot as a superior Louisiana gumbo.

The chicken stew aji de gallina , in another sauce enriched with ground walnuts, is kind of bland until you enrich it with a few squirts of the home-made chile puree, also called aji , that comes in squeeze bottles on the table. There are tasty versions of the cilantro-spiked lamb stew seco , the Peruvian menudo cau cau , and tallarin verde , spaghetti tossed with spinach-basil pesto and topped with a thin, breaded steak, a dish that seems to be on every Peruvian menu in Los Angeles but is practically unknown in Peru.

All this is irrelevant: You will certainly order spit-roasted chicken the first time you come to El Pollo Inka, and the juicy, crisp-skinned bird is as good as it smells, good enough so that you may decide to order another whole bird to go so that you can make another meal of it the next day. If you come to El Pollo Inka on a Saturday or a Sunday, do not neglect to order picarones , crunchy pumpkin fritters served in a dark syrup that rank among the most delicious Latin American desserts in town.

* El Pollo Inka

15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale, (310) 676-6665. 1425 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 516-7378. 23705 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, (310) 373-0062. 11000 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach, (310) 372-1433. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $10-$25.

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