Rotisserie Chicken

PERUVIAN: Chicken and fries at Lola’s, which serves rotisserie chicken made with a wet citrus-and-spice marinade. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

HERE'S THE experience I'm always on the prowl for: a simple, golden, tender rotisserie chicken, bursting with juice, lifted off its skewer when it's just cooked and placed in my hands. I run home and pull apart the warm, delicate meat with my bare fingers. A bite of baguette, a dab of mayo or a drop of melted butter. Heaven.

The magic of this classic spit-roasted bird is in its simplicity -- a basic seasoning, a well-timed turn on a skewer and an immediate transfer of the just-finished bird to the customer. How do you find that succulent chicken, tender but not mealy, moist but not slippery and flavorful but naturally so? In L.A., it's not hard if you scope out the places that know (and care) that excess prepping, cooking and handling will ruin a bird. Follow a few golden rules and you stand a good chance of discovering great rotisserie chicken.

Golden Chicken Rule No. 1

Do not go to places that hold the cooked birds in hot boxes, under heat lamps or in uncomfortable little containers under tight plastic wrap. How long have those chickens been there? They cook until they collapse on themselves from shear exhaustion and become mealy and dry. Sorry, but this includes most large chains and supermarkets.

Golden Chicken Rule No. 2

Go to places where you can have a more personal experience. This means finding a place that specializes in rotisserie chicken where you can see the cooking right up front. Look for individually owned stores (in some cases small chains) that cook and serve birds right away and can honor special requests. Yes, yes, I've had the Costco and Zankou birds. You can't get such bargains anywhere else (or can you?) -- and that garlic sauce! But if you cast a wider net, you can taste rotisserie birds of many styles from purveyors with a personal touch. When I asked Rosario at Pollos El Brasero in L.A.'s Pico Heights area for a bird "just cooked" (you can ask!), she said, "Wait five minutes." And I did.

Some chicken places have pretty nifty sides dishes that you don't come across every day, such as homemade Armenian and Greek salads at Soumarelo, a small Middle Eastern restaurant in Pasadena, and fabulous eggplant and tabbouleh salads at Moishe's, a venerable Original Farmers Market spot. Many have terrific bargains. Soumarelo's amazing $7.99 whole-chicken package includes an excellent rice pilaf, four large pitas and two sauces. Why would you heat up your own kitchen if you have this?

Golden Chicken Rule No. 3

Go at peak hours. Be there when the place is operating at full tilt even if you are not planning to eat your chicken right then. Don't go at 3 in the afternoon to find two lonely birds circling the chicken Ferris wheel probably since 11 a.m.

And it's good if the owners or staffers have been doing this awhile. Carol and Steve Salita have owned Reddi-Chick in the Brentwood Country Mart for 29 years. "I kind of eyeball the clientele each day and put the birds on the spits accordingly," Carol says. "I don't like finished birds just sitting."

John Phillips of Gourmet Grill Masters brings a catering truck to the Larchmont Farmers Market every Sunday (and other markets throughout the week) and does nothing but cook chickens, about 150 a day. He's always very busy rearranging his hot rotating skewers to keep those chickens golden and not overcooked.

"I place my finished birds up here and away from the main heat where they're not cooking anymore, but just a bit hot," he says. I love his devotion.

Golden Chicken Rule No. 4

Consider the prep. The prepping of the birds is a whole other critical matter. I am a less-is-more gal. The less you cook and treat the bird, the happier I am. The simpler the prep, the better the flavor and texture of the flesh. Reddi-Chick uses a non-MSG seasoning salt right before cooking. Staffers at Moishe's dry brine the cavities only of the chickens. On the other hand, Soumarelo in Pasadena uses a dry brine, then marinates, even puts yogurt in the cavity. Gourmet Grill Masters uses a dry rub 24 hours before cooking; this maintains juiciness while giving zest to the crackled skin.

The more the bird is brined or marinated, the more its texture and flavor change. For example, the Oinkster in Eagle Rock, where the chicken has a nice, juicy, natural finish, makes sure to wet brine no more than two hours before skewering or, staffers say, the birds get mushy.

In the rotisserie chicken world, there are divergent opinions on brining, wet or dry, and marinades, but it's a question of taste. If one place has too much "something" for you, go to the next and ask how they prep their birds. Ask!

Golden Chicken Rule No. 5

Go Peruvian for wood-fired. Most rotisseries are gas-ignited with the fire behind the ceramic grid, so the cooking process does not lend additional flavor to the finished birds. But three Peruvian places (Pollos El Brasero, Lola's in Van Nuys and Pollo a la Brasa in L.A.'s Koreatown) have a different take: Their chickens are infused with flavorful marinades and the wood fire used in their rotisseries gives the skins a spirited, smoky finish. Legions of chicken lovers line up for this interpretation.

Golden Chicken Rule No. 6