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Back to delicious basics

Lengthy restaurant menus arouse suspicion. Can you really feel confidence in, say, the fish and chips when they share a menu with enchiladas, pancakes and fettuccine alfredo?

Pollito Con Papas II, a new restaurant in Nob Hill, presents no such problem. It serves Peruvian chicken and potatoes, and that’s about it. There are seven entrees, and a few appetizers and sides. There is no flipping through a binder of menu pages. In fact, you don’t even get a menu – you consult the one set under the plastic table cover at your seat.

The chicken-stuffed potato is made with mashed potatoes packed around chicken thigh meat, rolled in cassava flour and fried. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The original Pollito con Papas opened on Gibson seven years ago and quickly established a loyal following among the Kirtland Air Force Base crowd. The success of the original, lunchtime-only spot inspired the owners to open a second location recently on the south side of Central across from the Nob Hill Bar and Grill. The menu is the same, but the new place is open through dinner and is in the process of getting a liquor license.

Pollito con Papas II occupies a detached, pitched-roof structure that was formerly home to Sushi & Sake and a Korean barbecue house. It’s a great location, with lots of natural light and a good-sized patio on the east side. The interior has been made over to mirror the white-walls-with-red-trim design scheme of the original location.

Visiting Pollito Con Papas is like dropping in on relatives who are eager to sit you down and feed you. My recent lunch visit began with Rene Coronado, who runs the place with his Peruvian-born wife, Monica, holding the door open for me and then apprising me of the daily specials.

I had heard good things about the chicken-stuffed potato, available as an appetizer ($5.75) and an accompaniment for two of the entrees, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s made by mashing and seasoning potatoes, and then forming them around a core of chicken thigh meat. The entire assembly is then rolled in flour made from the root vegetable cassava. It’s fried and served with aji sauce, a Peruvian mayonnaise-based sauce named for the pepper that gives it its bite. The thin, crisp coating provides a nice textural contrast to the creamy potato, and the faintly green aji sauce, tasting a bit like spicy ranch dressing, adds welcome heat. This deconstructing and reconstructing of a potato might qualify as molecular gastronomy. Or maybe sorcery. Regardless, it’s a must-try side or appetizer. My only complaint: The tin cup of aji is too small. The stuff deserves a bowl of its own.

Peruvian chicken – typically chicken marinated in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, lime and spices, and cooked on a rotisserie – is presented various ways at Pollito con Papas II. The boneless grilled thighs and the chimichanga are popular choices, as is the #7 ($10.99), a half-chicken served with aji sauce. The fire from the rotisserie leaves behind charred patches of skin and moist, smoky meat. Even for a longtime favorer of white meat chicken like me, the highlights here are the thigh and drumstick – both are more tender, moist and flavorful than the breast.

The dish comes with your choice of fries or cilantro rice. I opted for the rice and was pleased by both its pyramidal presentation and discreet flavor. You can also get fried yucca, made from cassava and offering a denser, sweeter alternative to potato fries.

Consider washing the food down with a glass of chicha ($2.50), Pollito con Papas’ version of an ancient, corn-based Peruvian drink. In this country, you become programmed to expect grape flavor from a purple drink, but the chicha tastes faintly of apple and is not nearly as sugary as a typical fruit drink.

For dessert, Pollito con Papas II serves up Peruvian flan ($4), a generous hunk of custard in a sweet, slightly bitter coconut-studded caramel sauce.

Arriving on the heels of the ART construction’s merciful departure, Pollito con Papas II provides an inexpensive introduction to Peruvian food that makes it a welcome addition to the Nob Hill dining scene.

3 stars