“Pio pio” is what a Spanish chick says, as you know if you’ve joined the United Farm Workers Union in singing “De Colores.” It would translate as “cheep cheep,” which isn’t so evocative as a restaurant name but serves, homonymically at least, to describe one aspect of Mr. Pio Pio, a chicken-specialty eatery on Albany’s Quail Street.
It’s in the heart of what’s termed the “student ghetto,” recently famed for its March madness. When you look beyond the lunkheads, it’s a neighborhood of many low-priced eateries (and drinkeries, of course), with Hudson River Coffee House, one of the region’s better java joints, a recently opened anchor.
Mr. Pio Pio is owned and run by an Ecuadorian family named Santamaria, who for more than three years have offered a low-priced array of traditional dishes sure to resonate with lovers of Latin-American food. I take the menu presence of bandeja tipica ($13.25) as a good sign: It’s a bounty of fried plantain, fried egg, fried pork rind and avocado with a grilled steak lurking underneath.
The restaurant interior promises little. Bilingual television is achieved through the use of two large flat-screen units tuned to two different stations. Takeout orders are handled at a counter near the entrance; beyond is a dining space with a handful of bare cafeteria tables. But as you seat yourself an intense friendliness kicks in. You’re greeted warmly, menus appear (they’re helpfully photo-illustrated), and a drink order is sought. Pursue one of what’s listed on the menu back as “natural juices” ($3), which turns out to be a frothy, naturally sweetened shake of blackberry, passion fruit, mango and more—even that pawpaw cousin, soursop.
Soups include brews of chicken ($3.50/$5) and beef ($4.50/$6), with the Ecuadorian caldo de bolas (featuring meat-stuffed plantain balls, $8.50) and encebollado de pescado (tuna, tomatoes and pickled onions, $9) offering more of a complete meal.
At the heart of the menu is an array of rotisserie-cooked chicken dishes, starting with the modestly named Feast ($7.25), a platter with a quarter-chicken at its center, surrounded by fried plantains, rice and beans. To put it bluntly, the bird is delicious. Here’s a cooking process that makes the most of what the meat offers, incorporating the flavors of skin and bones as the meat finishes to a juicy turn. As you well know, my wife is a fanatic for chicken, and many years ago I notoriously quoted her as noting that the birds deserved to be eaten “because they’re so stupid.”
Objections were raised; her humanity was questioned. Since then we’ve been keeping a flock of chickens, and I can assert with empirical authority that she’s right.
So it’s with a clear conscience that you can consider such other chicken dishes as the Grande Feast ($13.25), which adds grilled beef and spare ribs to the regular feast; the Pio Pio special ($10.25) of a half chicken with fries, beans and salad; pechuga de pollo (breast of chicken) asado (roasted, $8.75) or empanizado (breaded and fried, $8.50); a Creole-sauced stew (pollo guisado, $8) and more.
Although we neglected the seafood portion of the menu this time, there’s obviously reason to return. The fried red snapper (price varies) inspired Celina Ottaway’s Times Union paean, and there are several preparations of shrimp (grilled, $11; breaded, $11; stewed, $12; citrus-marinated, $9.50, among them), as well as tilapia ($11), salmon (with crab sauce, $14) and a seafood-with-rice combo ($14.50).
So I have a spouse who seems to eat only chicken, and a daughter who won’t eat factory-processed meat, pretty much ruling out chicken, beef and pork products. Which is why she ordered the cabrito guisado (goat stew, $9.75), having already acquainted herself with the meat’s flavor from its appearance on Indian and Caribbean menus. Here it’s curry free, and thus able to impart more of its own richness, also proving again that the cuts of meat that require tenderizing also tend to be the more flavorful as a result.
Tongue and tripe are menu items, as are preparations of pork and various cuts of beef. Acting on our server’s recommendation, I chose the steak supreme ($15.25), which he suggested either because he truly believes in its awesomeness, or because it’s the most expensive item on the menu and thus increases his tip—a strategy I often employed when a waiter myself, although I tended to recommend the second most expensive entrée so as to seem less obvious.
Which is not to say the steak wasn’t, in fact, awesome, arriving on a sizzle platter with a confetti-like layer of colorful peppers and onions on top. It’s a thin cut that puts up a little more of a fight than your top-shelf sirloin, but it exceeded my expectations and I’d certainly order it again. With the accompanying rice and beans, it’s a formidably sized serving as well.
Whatever the drawbacks of this student-infested neighborhood, maybe it’s what we need to attract low-cost restaurants of interesting ethnic variety. Tip a car for bandeja tipica? Maybe that’s the trade-off.
Mr. Pio Pio, 160B Quail St., Albany, 463-2800. Serving 11-10 Mon-Thu, 11-11 Fri-Sat, 11-9 Sun. MC, V.
Entrée price range: $7.25 (quarter chicken platter) to $15.25 (grilled steak platter)
Ambiance: muy informal