It was Saturday night at Higo Chicken. The small dining room was at capacity; the wait list, a half-dozen deep. As I stood there twiddling my thumbs, I saw one of the cooks at the stove. Flicking his wrist, he tossed ingredients around in his wok as flames erupted in bursts. And as he coaxed the stir-fry with his spatula—the vessel clanging, smoke and steam escaping—the aromas wafted into the waiting area. The smell was torture for those of us who hadn’t been seated.
I took stock of where I was: a dilapidated La Habra strip mall that had seen better days. Next door was a liquor store, a windowless dive bar next to that. Previously, this location was Higo Sushi, owned by a chef named Luis Uechi, who is Japanese by ancestry but Peruvian by upbringing.
At his sushi bar, Uechi was known around town for sneaking ceviche and tiradito with his nigiri and rolls. When he moved Higo Sushi to a revitalized shopping center a couple of blocks away now anchored by a shiny new Northgate Gonzalez supermarket, he turned the old place into a sort of spin-off. And it’s here that Uechi displays his Peruvian side in full bloom.
The menu is a laser-focused greatest-hits parade of Peruvian standards. The entire list fits on one page. I counted exactly four main entrées: arroz chaufa, saltado, tallarin saltado and ají de gallina. Different portion sizes of the pollo a la brasa takes up the rest of the list, which includes combos that pair the Peruvian rotisserie chicken with two kinds of rice, spaghetti or salchipapa, French fries served with thinly sliced hot dogs. The appetizers run the gamut from an intricately layered causa to greaseless deep-fried plantains.
When I was finally seated, the squirt bottles of ají were the first to arrive. The ají verde—the ubiquitous jade-green condiment that’s the Peruvian equivalent of Sriracha—was accompanied by its rarely seen cousin ají amarillo. The verde was herby, sweet and hot, while the amarillo was tangy, tart and hotter. I dribbled both on everything—the rice, anything made of potato, but especially the pollo a la brasa.
It’s not as if the chicken needed any embellishment. This was a bird that’s not only deeply marinated, but there are also spices caked onto the crispy skin, their flavors seeping all the way down to flesh and bone. Most important, it was roasted so perfectly that even the breast meat was juicy and milky moist. If Costco’s $5 chicken is the low bar for rotisserie poultry, Higo’s pollo a la brasa is the apex.
And I liked that I was able to order a piece of it on top of arroz chaufa, which was already a great dish. Every oil-slicked grain in Higo’s version of this Chinese-Peruvian fried rice had been touched by soy, beaten egg and a hint of wok-hey, that elusive smoky breath of a good Asian stir-fry.
There was, however, no other entrée that had more wok-hey than the lomo saltado. And Higo’s was, without question, the best I’ve had. Everything about the dish—from the delicate balance of cumin and soy sauce to the way the red onion was wilted so its harshness was gone but its snap was intact—was spot-on. There wasn’t a single scrap of the steak that wasn’t soft and seared as though Vietnamese bo luc lac. And unlike other Peruvian restaurants that take the shortcut of using frozen fries for their saltado, Higo Chicken actually takes the extra step of cutting and frying the potato spears from scratch.
The fact that the kitchen staff went through this effort while also offering stock fries as a separate side dish told me that Uechi is the kind of chef who believes if you’re going to do something, do it right. This is further reflected in a by-the-book ají de gallina, a classic Peruvian dish that had shredded chicken mired in a thick, canary-yellow sauce made from bread, milk and ají amarillo. Uechi served it with all the traditional trimmings, including boiled potato, half a hard-boiled egg and a single olive.
Ever the fusionist, Uechi also snuck in the ají de gallina as the filling for his deep-fried wontons. They were a revelation—and it’s not the only hint that someone Asian was the brains behind the operation. At the counter, next to a picture of Jesus, was one of those familiar, ceramic, Japanese cat ornaments waving its paw. But the most telling clue of all is that the restaurant poured Sapporo and Asahi beer along with Cusqueña; whether to toast with a “salud” or “kanpai” is up to you.
Higo Chicken, 722 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 524-2026; www.higochicken.com. Open Sun. & Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Entrées, $10-$16. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.