Walter ate with me and a few other friends at Pio Pio over the weekend and has graciously volunteered to write this extraordinarily detailed entry! Here goes:

Pio Pio Salon’s mascot is a cute little cartoon chicken wearing oversized running shoes. The bird clearly needs to run as fast as it can, because the main item on Pio Pio’s menu is Peruvian-style roasted chicken, and the roomful of hungry diners aren’t about to let anything even vaguely poultry-shaped escape.

Hispanic-style roast chicken joints are widespread throughout New York, but they’re mostly located in immigrant neighborhoods. While Pio Pio has roots in the outer boroughs, their Upper West Side location at 94th and Amsterdam is clearly an attempt to bring smart casual dining- South American style – to the UWS ‘masses’. Their dining room is modern and well-appointed, with furnishings seemingly by the same people who decorate chains like Panera Bread or Starbucks. However, the hand-drawn rustic murals and the ambient Latin musak remind you that you’re not in suburbia anymore. There is a definite energy about the place – radiating from the packed dining room – that makes you
convivially hungry. This is a place for friendship, and feasting!chicken

The menu at Pio Pio – for a place that’s supposed to be about the chicken – actually has plenty of non-chicken items. That probably makes sense since the centerpiece Peruvian roast chicken comes only one way – whole roasted and cut in quarters. The remainder of the entree list – consisting mostly of fish and a few other electic options like Peruvian-Chinese fried rice – is probably destined to be ignored, although we did order the Arroz con Mariscos. We decided the mainstay of our meal would be two roast chicken platters, each with a different combination of accompaniments like fries, rice, beans, and other starchy standbys. Two roast chickens, sides, and a rice dish -would that be enough food for seven?

We started by ordering two ceviches and a jug of Sangria. The starters menu has a definite pan-Latin-American flair to it -besides the ceviche, there were several intriguing options, including crab-stuffed potatoes and Peruvian tamales. Wikipedia tells me that ceviche originated in the olden Viceroyalty of Peru – it’s always reassuring to know that your raw fish dish has been eaten safely for hundreds of years! We had one fish ceviche, and one mixed seafood ceviche – both were great, the fish tangy and crisp from the lime marinade, with the characteristic sweetness of raw seafood but none of the unpleasant fishiness. Some restaurants will cook their ceviche, instead of curing the fish in the lime juice. While I’m usually happy to avoid food poisoning (although properly prepared ceviche should – I’m assured -render that risk negligible) I must admit that the raw version is probably superior. Cooking can be a harsh process that strips the subtlety from food.

Ceviche was, of course, only an appetizer. Scarcely had we cleared our plates when a platter piled high with roasted chicken arrived, landing squarely in the center of our table. The chicken looked somewhat lonely (if you can call eight juicy beautifully roasted chicken quarters lonely) until a giant platter of fries arrived next, followed by two avocado salads, nother plate of fries-and-sausages, tostones (fried plantains), and rice-and-beans. Just as we had thought we would expire just thinking about eating all this food, our Arroz con Mariscos arrived, a golden giant mound of rice bedecked with mussels, clams, and shrimp. And we wondered whether three entrees could have fed seven.

It’s a little hard to describe how exactly a piece of chicken tastes because we’re all so used to eating it. Unlike a fine cut of beef or lamb, we’re just unaccustomed to noticing that our chicken is meant to taste of anything distinctive at all. Yet hicken does have, in of itself, a particular flavor – anyone who has eaten just the chicken alone from Hainanese Chicken Rice knows this. Pure chicken is not the bland, overcooked and rubbery meat we’re used to in chicken salads and sandwiches – chicken that’s just barely cooked, chicken on the edge of raw, is, I dare say, bold, even a little gamy. Then consider the opposite end; the processed chicken product, the McNugget, the fast-food fried chicken piece; spiced and  assaged and tenderized until all you taste is not so much chicken as what some food scientist would like chicken to be. I think good chicken cooking tries to strike a happy balance between these two extremes. Pio’s Pio’s chicken is an exceedingly good example of this style of cooking – seasoned and roasted in a process that adds the rich flavors of spices to the meat, yet with a light enough touch such that the basic essence of chicken (not the type that comes in a tiny bottle) is not lost.

One of the best parts about the meal? We ate well and heartily for $20 each – including a glass of Sangria each! That’s not easy to do in New York. I’ll be back sometime. Pio Pio’s chicken had better keep running.

Pio Pio Salon

702 Amsterdam Ave (at 94th St)