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
Temperature matters. If you are eating your chicken hot or at room temperature, all the places mentioned here -- no matter what the style or extent of prepping and cooking -- offer birds that are dive-in good. I also tasted these birds cold, as divine leftovers in a salad or sandwich. Those that were the least prepped and least cooked stayed moist and fresh. The most marinated or brined became dry or mealy and sometimes tasted a bit treated or hardened a little when chilled.
Golden Chicken Rule No. 7
Don't reheat, but crisping's OK. Despite marketing claims, rotisserie chickens do not stay crisp for long. Unlike with broiled or oven-roasted chickens, the fire is not hot enough for a reliably crisp finish. Do not reheat these chickens when you get home; avoid a twice-cooked-chicken taste. There is no rule that states you must eat a hot chicken. You can have it hot in some of these restaurants -- but if you're getting takeout, it will cool by the time you get home anyway. Let it cool and serve some of the great sauces such as the Peruvian aji, a chile sauce, or Moishe's or Soumarelo's great garlic sauce.
It is not against the rules to dress up your takeout. I cut a chicken in half, place it on a cookie sheet skin side up, paint it lightly with herbed or garlic butter (or barbecue sauce) and run it under a hot broiler for five minutes. Don't heat the meat through -- just crisp the skin. Then turn off that oven and enjoy your hot summer.
Where to buy the best birds in L.A. County THE FOLLOWING, in alphabetical order, represents a broad spectrum of sources for beautiful rotisserie birds, freshly made and ready to go. Some offer excellent meal package prices; several have exceptional side dishes. Gourmet Grill Masters. This catering company sends its chicken rotisserie truck to farmers markets seven days a week. For $11, you get a free-range corn-fed chicken, cooked without butter or oil. A nice herb rub gives off a seductive cooking aroma and lends a light barbecue kick to the skin. Markets include West Hollywood, Manhattan Beach, Torrance, Highland Park, downtown Los Angeles, Westchester, Sierra Madre, Northridge, Carson, Westwood, South Pasadena, Long Beach, Echo Park, Laguna Beach, Larchmont and Mar Vista. Call or check website for details. (310) 515-1902; (323) 428-3611; www.grillmasters-chicken.com. Lola's. In a small strip mall in the heart of Van Nuys, staffers at Lola's are busy feeding the flames of the rotisserie at the front of the restaurant. Oak, hard and dry, is the preferred wood. Lola's serves a variety of foods, but rotisserie chicken made with a wet citrus-and-spice Peruvian marinade is the menu's centerpiece. This branch cooks 100 to 120 a day. A large chicken with two sides such as an enormous order of hand-cut long fries or beans made with chiles, bacon and onions is $14.99. 14851 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 988-2181; and 230 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5888. Moishe's Restaurant. In operation for 16 years, Moishe's has probably the most varied and best tasting side dishes of the Mediterranean-style rotisserie places, all made right there: hummus, eggplant salad, tabbouleh, delicious pilaf, many more. Among the choices are some real buys: whole chicken (straightforward and juicy) with pita, pink turnip pickles and garlic sauce for $9.75; half a chicken with two sides for $9.75. In the Original Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 936-4998. The Oinkster. This restored and updated former drive-in has ample indoor/outdoor seating with umbrellas out front, its own parking lot and a big sign that reads "Slow Fast Food: Pastrami, Hamburgers, Chicken." A plain but moist, barely seasoned, slightly wet-brined golden bird a la carte with a garlicky aioli is $8.75 and can be accessorized with typical American sides such as coleslaw and fries. 2005 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 255-OINK. Pollo a la Brasa. The most popular of the Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken places, this spot always boasts a line. The Okinawan-born owner had several chicken places in Peru before opening this shop 17 years ago. He brought the giant 64-chicken rotisserie from Peru; it has pride of place at the front of the shop where the birds on it crackle and spurt. It's all wood-fired -- oak and eucalyptus. The wine-based marinade gives the chicken a reddish golden finish; there's a pronounced smoky note. A chicken's about $10. Add rice, beans, a generous portion of fries and/or an interesting mixed salad made with cauliflower, beets and cucumber. 764 S. Western Ave. (at 8th Street), Los Angeles, (213) 382-4090, and 16527 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena, (310) 715-2494. Pollos El Brasero. It's pretty much all chicken here with the rotisserie right in the window catching your eye as you drive past. There's always a line at lunch. The style is Peruvian, using all-wood fire, with a light marinade that lets a no-nonsense hint of fire flavor come through. Sides are basic: fries, beans and salad and a particularly good and potent aji, chile sauce. Whole chicken a la carte is $9.70. 2281 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, (213) 381-6060. Reddi-Chick. Established 58 years ago, this landmark counter in Brentwood Country Mart has been under the current owners 29 years. Take your $11.95 a la carte bird home or step out to the courtyard and partake on umbrella-shaded picnic tables. House-made sides -- beans, slaw and fries -- are available to go with that bird, which has a nice natural flavor but can be a little dry (ask for one that's less cooked). 225 26th St., Santa Monica, (310) 393-5238. www.brentwoodcountry. Soumarelo Fresh Mediterranean Grill. Birds at this 2-year-old Armenian restaurant are slow-cooked and very flavorful. They're brined overnight and marinated for one day and have a moist, tender finish. A terrific value: a whole chicken with two sides, huge pita and a strong, delicious garlic sauce is $7.99. Choose from an excellent array of homemade hot and cold sides. 1090 N. Allen Ave, Pasadena, (626) 791-0999. --Judith Kane Jeanson