The magic number at Machu Picchu Charcoal Chicken & Grill is 24. That's how many hours their rotisserie chicken soaks in a secret brew before it's slid onto a spit and roasted over hot coals to a succulent, smoky-to-the-bone perfection.
Twenty-four is also about the number of seconds that it takes to walk to Rosy and Hugo Cerna's other restaurant, also dubbed Machu Picchu. Why open a second Peruvian restaurant a tamale's throw from the first?
"Because we really wanted to serve pollos a la brasa," says Rosy Cerna about their charcoal chicken. "It's a national dish in Peru, but you never serve it at a restaurant where you have all the other Peruvian dishes like we have at Machu Picchu. Pollos a la brasa has to have a restaurant of its own."
And now it does. In a storefront in Somerville's Union Square, behind the comfy dining room, a special Peruvian rotisserie oven hulks in the kitchen. In it golden brown birds prickling with cumin, oregano - and other spices Cerna won't reveal - turn and turn over hardwood coals.
We order the quarter chicken with misky salad ($5.99) and the plate our attentive server brings us is a carbophobe's delight. Our juicy, beer-marinated chicken breast comes shored up by a green salad topped by a produce shelf's worth of steamed veggies and a generous fan of sliced avocado. For a full dinner, it's a bargain.
The hits don't end with the rotisserie meals. Machu No. 2 turns out nice starters, sandwiches, salads, and other grilled meats. Try the fabulous, nearly paperback-book-size tamale ($6.99). Tender roast pork, boiled egg, and tangy olive are tucked into a cornmeal dough so comforting, it's no wonder it's breakfast in Peru.
Choclo Peruano, Peruvian corn ($6.99), arrives looking like giant, mutant corn on the cob. Its kernels, as fat and soft as lima beans, are plucked from the cob and nibbled with firm, white cubes of fresh farmers cheese. Together, they satisfy in the quiet way that good bread with fresh mozzarella does.
Most dishes, including crispy spears of fried yucca ($5.99), come with two homemade mayos. One burns with jalapeno heat softened with Peruvian mint. The other hums with the milder taste of the yellow aji amarillo pepper. If Cerna sold them in jars, I'd gladly buy both (to bathe in).
Among several nice salads, quinoa ($6.99) is the true find. A fluffy hill of this ancient Incan grain is tossed with lime, cilantro, and red onion, flavors that recall the brightness of Peruvian ceviche.
Much of what comes off the grill might be found at an American barbecue joint under different names, such as churrasco al grill, a chewy-but-juicy flank steak ($13.99); costillas de cerdo, tender, but unfortunately not smoky, spareribs ($13.99); and pollo al estilo, moist, herbed chicken kabobs ($9.99).
More exciting though is the el Peruanisimo, roast pork and sweet potato sandwich ($5.99), which layers a party's worth of flavors onto a lovely, light toasted bun. The secret is hot aji slices, cilantro, and tangy lime-based Peruvian salsa. And though the lomito saltado, steak sandwich ($5.99), is salty, chicken parrillero ($5.99) deserves a ribbon for taking the usual dull, dry grilled bird and turning it into a flavorful, juicy sandwich.
Desserts deftly hit the usual creamy notes with leche asada, baked custard; wonderfully rich "three milk" tres leche cake; and rice pudding fragrant with orange ($3.50 each). Or walk a half block and finish up at Machu No. 1 with a frothy pisco sour cocktail. They certainly make it easy to visit both.