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Rockin Chicken: Peruvian Specialties From Back Home

When he bought the building on Franklin Avenue in Hartford, Miguel Colan knew what he wanted the space to become — a casual restaurant serving the foods of his native Peru, including whole marinated chickens slowly spit-roasted to perfection. But there was one big deal breaker — the oven had to be charcoal-fired.

"My goal when I opened this place [was] that I had to do it with charcoal ... the way it's done back home," Colan says.

He got his wish, shipping a charcoal rotisserie from Peru. In May, Colan and his wife, Kate, opened The Rockin Chicken in the city's South End, a 49-seat eatery with a fast-casual atmosphere and a menu of Peruvian specialties.

Colan has lived in the neighborhood since he moved to the United States at age 12, and as a youth, briefly held a job at an Italian pastry shop that formerly occupied the building he now owns. He's a chiropractor now, with a nearby office, but fondly remembers the days when his mother owned a restaurant in Peru. "For many years, it was something I've wanted to have," he says.

The chicken is a natural focus, starting with 3-1/2-pound whole birds marinated for about 24 hours in a secret family recipe (Colan will only divulge garlic and vinegar as two of about 15 key ingredients.) Chickens are loaded into the rotisserie and slow-cooked to a golden brown, producing moist and juicy meat with a smoky finish from the burning coals.

Big appetites may feast on a Rockin Chicken special combo, with choice of chicken portion (quarter, half or whole, $8.99 to $19.99) and two sides: including house salad, fresh-cut fries, fried or sweet plantains, fried yuca or rice. Another combination features chicken portions with fried rice and fries ($9.99 to $24.99) and the Mike's Special, named for a regular customer, includes a quarter-chicken with fried rice and chorizo or hot dog over fries.

The Rockin Chicken's menu also features many other dishes that reflect Peru's unique multicultural history: Asian-influenced fried rice ($9.99 to $16.99,) with eggs, vegetables and choice of meat or seafood; lomo saltado ($13.99), or strips of sirloin sauteed with soy sauce, red onion, tomato and served with french fries over rice; tallarin verde, or linguine in pesto sauce ($9.99); and chicken Milanesa ($13.99), a breaded fried chicken breast with fries, rice and salad. Other dishes incorporate indigenous ingredients: lucuma fruit smoothies, large-kernel Peruvian corn and sweet potato and classic chicha morada, a sweet beverage made from purple corn.

Ceviche wasn't originally on The Rockin Chicken's opening menu, Colan says, but as guests began to ask for it, they added two varieties: fresh fish or shrimp ($13.99 to $16.99,) marinated in lime juice, served with thinly sliced red onion, white and sweet potato and Peruvian corn.

Grill items ($9.99 to $29.99) feature bistec (top sirloin), churrasco (N.Y. strip), pork chops and a mixtura parrilla with strip, quarter-chicken, two pork chops and two chorizo. For $3.50, any grill entree can be served "a lo pobre" with two fried eggs and sweet plantain. And anticuchos (marinated grilled veal heart skewers) and rachi (grilled tripe) may not be instantly recognizable to most, so it gives Colan a thrill to see non-Peruvians eating and enjoying the delicacies, he says.

The menu also offers various soups ($4.99 to $10.99) like soup a la minuta with beef or chicken, noodles, egg and milk; and cilantro-based aguadito, with chicken. Colan's mother makes traditional desserts ($3) like mazamorra morada (made from purple corn), crema volteada (similar to flan); and leche asada (roasted milk custard.) Smoothies ($5) are available in various exotic fruit flavors: mango, passion fruit and guanabana.

The restaurant has been a lot of work, Colan says, especially with juggling his chiropractic practice and family life, as he and his wife have two young children. But early word of mouth and social media-driven business have been good, as customers continue to find them on Franklin Avenue for dine-in, takeout and delivery.

"We can't believe how lucky we've been," he says.

THE ROCKIN CHICKEN, 476 Franklin Ave., Hartford, is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays. 860-244-2536 and facebook.com/therockinchicken.

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