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Eatery serves authentic Peruvian chicken

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 4:49 a.m.

When a dream comes true, it's more often because of hard work than a poof of magic.

"I always wanted to have my own restaurant," Shelbin Santos says. Now she does. She's been proprietor of Chicken Latino in the Strip District since June 2007, when she opened the restaurant with her then-husband. The marriage didn't survive the stress of the business' first year.

Chicken Latino serves authentic Peruvian chicken in various dishes as the basis of its menu. The chickens are local. The authenticity comes from her recipes and the method of cooking. Latino desserts and beverages are featured, but she does serve hamburgers ($6.75) and cheeseburgers ($7).

Santos came to the United States from Peru in 2001 to go to college, intending a career in health care. But when she saw the economic opportunities here, she decided to return home to prepare to fulfill her dream.

"In Peru, pollorias are as common as pizzerias are here," she says. Pollo is Spanish for chicken. She paid to work in pollorias to learn the tricks of the trade, then developed her own recipes with her mom.

It takes more than recipes to make authentic Peruvian chicken, though. She also purchased a large commercial Peruvian rotisserie and had it shipped to Pittsburgh.

"Our rotisseries are different from the ones you see in large grocery stores here. American rotisseries surround the meat with heat. Sometimes you even see sparks jumping to the chicken. Chickens stay juicier in Peruvian rotisseries because the heat is indirect, from below the birds," she says.

Her unit can cook 30 birds at a time. Usually, she picks up fresh chickens a few times a week, but when business is heavy she sometimes has to buy boxes of chicken every day. For customers wanting a catered meal, she will obtain Kosher or organic chickens.

Prior to cooking, the birds are marinated overnight in red wine vinegar and a secret blend of spices, most of which she won't divulge. But she admits to using Peruvian aji panca peppers, cumin, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper.

Cooked chickens are sold whole or in halves or quarters ($17.50, $9.50 and $6.50) and are served with Spanish rice and black beans or French fries and cole slaw.

The Peruvian chicken also is used in the deep-fried or soft burritos ($3.95 to $4.50). A chicken quesadilla is $7.95.

Side dishes, in addition to French fries ($2.75), include black beans or Spanish yellow rice ($2.50), Yucca fries ($3.99), and fried plantain ($2.99).

The Latino desserts are sweet Spanish rice pudding with raisins ($3.25), flan, or Spanish custard ($3.25), and three-milk cake ($4.50). The cake is rich because after baking, holes are poked in the top for evaporated and condensed milk and cream to soak in.

Chicken Latino serves Inka Kola from Peru, which is sweet and uses pineapple, as well as mango, guayana and passion fruit drinks ($2.35), in addition to Pepsi and Mountain Dew ($1.75).

Additional Information:

Chicken Latino

Location: 155 21st St., Strip District.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Details: 412-246-0974

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