Eight years ago I walked into a small Central American restaurant on Denison called La Brasa and couldn't believe my eyes. Right there behind the counter was a beefy charcoal barbecue pit built into the floor of the open kitchen. Hovering just above the heat source — brasa translates to glowing ember — was a custom grate designed to cradle a dozen spatchcocked chickens. With a flick of the owner's wrist, the entire assembly swiveled, flipping every yardbird at once.
That restaurant vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, leaving only memories of its magical chicken, sold for a pittance by the half or whole. But then I heard about Steven's Chicken and the unshakable longing was replaced by optimism. When I meet owner Luis Cancinos for the first time (the restaurant is named after his son) and mention La Brasa, he smiles and says that the short-lived restaurant was run by his sister, a remarkable twist of fate that bodes well for chicken lovers.
Like his sister, Cancinos marinates the birds in a secret brew of citrus juice and, perhaps, soy sauce and brown sugar, butterflies them and grills them over lump charcoal. Unlike his sister, he does so out back behind the restaurant, which is considerably cheaper than the $80,000 his sister ponied up to construct and vent her indoor barbecue pit. Though half the size, the grill is equipped with the same type of pivoting grate system, which facilitates effortless and frequent flipping, a method of self-basting that keeps the meat juicy. What comes out the other end is smoky and copper colored, with beautiful bits of charred skin here and there. The bones slide out of the meat like a loose tooth.
The entire bird ($15) is tucked whole into a giant aluminum foil roasting pan alongside heaps of crisp french fries and moist yellow rice with chopped white onion and crisp bean sprouts, a nice touch. The fries are fine if you're eating them immediately, but they won't survive a long drive home. That's why I ask to swap them out with a stack of corn tortillas, which not only thrive in the steamy environment, they provide a vehicle for eating the chicken meat.
Steven's is a perfectly lovely little restaurant with about seven tables, but most of the business is take-out. We did stick around for lunch one day while we waited for our grilled chicken to come off the grill. Cancinos does them in small batches throughout the day to keep them hot, fresh and delicious. The restaurant serves traditional El Salvadoran pupusas ($1.50), thick corn tortillas stuffed with chicken, cheese, bean paste or a combination thereof. The pancake-size patties are served with the customary curtido, a tart and crunchy cabbage slaw, and thin tomato sauce.
At $3 a pop, the tacos are a great option as well. We sampled the diced steak, tender lengua (tongue) and braised tripe, each of which is ladled onto a pair of warm corn tortillas and garnished with ripe avocado, chopped onion, cilantro and lime wedges. When we sat down, our server dropped off a basket of just-fried tortilla chips and bright, tart salsa verde, a sauce that perks up the tacos as well.
Also on the modest regular menu is a grilled steak dish, chicken flautas and a burger. Steven's is closed on Saturdays when the owner is at church, but he makes up for it on Sundays with specials like beef stew served with rice and thick handmade Guatemalan tortillas. Like unstuffed pupusas, the fragrant corn tortillas turn every meal into a celebration. Steven's also offers chiles rellenos, tostadas and garnachas, which are like tostadas that are made with those dense house tortillas.
For now, Cancinos is happy, but his dream is to one day build a setup similar to the one his sister had at La Brasa. Grilling chickens outside is fine half the year, but the other half ...
A Word About Tortillas
Like most people, I assumed that store-bought corn tortillas were just as good as homemade. But then I tasted some and discovered that the two have about as much in common as bakery bread and grocery store bread. But it wasn't until I took a cooking class in Mexico that I discovered that, unlike baking bread, making corn tortillas is child's play. It's literally two ingredients. So have the tortillas at Steven's, and if that's not possible, shelve the Ortega and make them yourself.
Note: You can roll out tortillas with a rolling pin, but a tortilla press will save you immeasurable amounts of time, frustration and wasted dough.
2 cups masa harina (Maseca is a popular brand)
1 1/2 cups warm water
In a large bowl, combine the masa and some of the water. Mix to form a dough. Keep adding water in small amounts and kneading until the dough is smooth and supple, like fresh Play-Doh.
Heat a large skillet or griddle over medium-high heat.
One at a time, pinch off ping-pong ball size portions of dough, roll them in a ball, place them in a lightly greased tortilla press, and press. Lightly oil the griddle and cook the tortillas, one or two at a time, for about 45 seconds per side. Keep them covered with a kitchen towel as they come off the heat.
Steven's Chicken3382 W. 44th Street