Known for pisco, alpacas, and Machu Picchu, the stark, rugged landscape of Peru is about as far as one can get from the gently undulating Lowcountry. The food, however, is now available — at least in part — in a quiet end location in Sweetgrass Corner Shopping Mall in Mt. Pleasant.
Much like the humble early beginnings of chain joints like El Pollo Loco or South Africa’s Nando’s, Mario’s Peruvian Chicken is hanging its hat on a single, simple ingredient; the gallus gallus domesticus. And much like El Pollo Loco — where they originally offered the pineapple juice-marinated yard birds with a side of salsa and some fresh corn tortillas — Mario’s cumin and oregano-enhanced fowl comes with your choice of simple sides.
Billed as ‘fast casual,’ most of Mario’s accompanying dish options were pre-cooked and lounging under heat lamps upon my arrival. Lukewarm and soggy, the thick cut steak fries ($3.50) were a bit long in the tooth, never the ideal when it comes to fried potatoes.
The rice ($3), is, well, white rice. Made with generous portions of both oil and salt, it’s as agreeable as plain white rice gets. Similarly, the Peruvian coleslaw ($3) is, well, coleslaw. Notably wet with an abundance of mayo, the only real flavors of note are those of raw cabbage and finely ground black pepper.
The restaurant is simple, with counter service manned by a welcoming woman with a sweet, shy demeanor. Music — doubtless Peruvian? — plays lightly overhead, more or less drowned out by the giant industrial fan in the hallway, presumably offsetting the adjacent large charcoal ovens. Despite any challenges, the temperature is comfortable and service ingratiating.
Meanwhile, the side of yuca ($3) — also known as cassava root — is notably uncomplicated. Although shown as boiled on Mario’s website, the yuca is served thickly sliced and freshly fried. Starchy and stiff, the carbohydrate-rich root makes for a dry and unyielding French fry. Still, due to its hot, freshly cooked status, it takes the prize for Most Desirable Side Dish.
Despite the lackluster sides, there is good news, as you could dunk anything — and I mean anything — into Mario’s mayo-based aji pollero sauce and enjoy it. Wet paper plates, leftover pizza boxes, or even a corn husk: Bring it on. Made with bright orange aji amarillo peppers, the sauce combines onions, huacatay (Peruvian black mint paste), and mayo, then blends them all into a light dip with surprising depth. The orange-hued ricoto sauce is also delicious, albeit more overtly spicy. Less nuanced than the aji pollero, the ricoto is reminiscent of sriracha mayo in both appearance and taste.
The real star of the show, however, is the chicken. Available in three sizes, the whole bird ($23.95) combo includes three sides, whereas the half ($12.50) and quarter ($8.50 for a leg/thigh, $9.25 for a breast/wing) options offer two.
Cumin-marinated and rotisserie-cooked, for those seeking a familiar comparison, the flavors are evocative of tandoori chicken. The poultry itself is charcoal-roasted, the two large ovens apparently keeping with Peruvian tradition. The skin is dark and flavorful — perhaps even crisp if you get your timing right — and the meat tender and juicy. Dipped into the spicy mayo-based sauces, it’s the stuff of stretchy pants dreams.
Combined with a fridge full of traditional beverages like the sweet and vibrant purple, clove-finished Chicha Morada ($3) and fizzy yellow, bubblegum-meets-cream soda Inca Kola ($2.50), Mario’s Peruvian Chicken brings a taste of South America to the Lowcountry. Although there’s (a lot) more than rotisserie chicken to Peruvian cuisine, this only leaves Mario’s room to grow and discover what dishes might work, while continuing with the charcoal-roasted offering that already does.