Working for and somehow befriending a few benevolent chefs has had many benefits; not the least of which is that they typically know where to find the best grub, and—of particular importance in my younger, leaner years—where to find it on the cheap.
I first realized this about three years ago when, acting upon a sous-chef’s recommendation, I took a trip to Planet Chicken in Dunellen, and thus, started an ongoing love affair with all that is Peruvian cuisine.
This week, I went back to sample the menu at Planet Chicken. Good news: It’s as good as I remember.
For those unfamiliar, Dunellen is a small, working-class town on the northwestern border of Middlesex County. While it may not be on the “beaten path” for most, if you’re looking for a reason to visit, I can give you two: ceviche and pollo a la brasa. These two dishes can be found in some form at most Latin or Central American restaurants with Peruvian offerings, but the good folks at Planet Chicken do it right, every time.
Start with the ceviche mixto as an appetizer. The bowl is piled high with fresh shrimp, squid and bite-sized chunks of fish, garnished with red onion and cilantro. Resting underneath this beautiful mound of ingredients is a broth, affectionately referred to as “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk), mostly comprised of citrus juice—the acid in it actually cooks the raw fish. A seafood lover’s dream, this ceviche mixto is big on flavor—it tastes as good as it looks—yet it’s light enough to have plenty of appetite left when the main attraction hits the table, in this case pollo a la brasa.
Think rotisserie chicken but way, way better. With a slightly crispy and perfectly seasoned exterior, and juicy meat throughout, this pollo is what keeps folks coming back. Oh, and if you somehow find the flavor lacking (it isn’t), a dish of the most addictive sauce you’ll ever have, aji verde, is brought out with other token condiments (I’ve never needed those). Get the “Planet Chicken Special Combo” with a side of fried yuca and extra aji verde for the leftovers,which you may or may not have (probably not, although portions are generous) depending on how hard you hit that ceviche starter.
Getting there: Planet Chicken, 107 N Washington Ave, Dunellen. Conveniently located about a block and a half from Dunellen Station (Raritan Valley Line, NJ Transit) or a 3-minute drive from Rte. 22 (just under 10 and 15 minutes drive-time from routes 287 and 78, respectively). No matter where you’re coming from or the mode of transportation, Planet Chicken is super accessible. And, let’s face it, once you’ve tried the food, the distance never seems that far for a return trip.
Pro tip: Bring a little extra cash with you. Not to cover the cost of the meal, but for the healthy tip you’ll want to give after you look at the bill and feel like you’re stealing from the place.