Once upon a time (as all good stories must begin), a six-by-six-foot crate from Colombia, weighing in at 1,100 pounds, arrived at Chicago customs. Following protocol, several officials and a police dog examined the package to make sure the contents were legal. Instead of contraband, they discovered a metallic box with a long metal rod running lengthwise through the middle. The recipient, Luis Montoya, called down to Canal Street to claim his package, explained to the officials that they had unpacked a rotisserie handcrafted in his homeland. The machine, he told them, was integral to creating the dishes he planned to serve at his north-side restaurant.

What customs didn’t know was that Montoya had brought over something else from his hometown of Cali–his grandmother’s secret recipe for roasted chicken. This recipe has been the foundation for three family-owned restaurants in Colombia, and now two in Chicago: the Flying Chicken, on Lincoln near Irving Park, and Rotisseries Restaurant, at 3300 W. Fullerton.

So what makes this chicken so good? “I can’t really say,” warned Montoya, “because we have a patent, but it’s all the ingredients put together. And also, I guess, the charcoal, which spices up the chicken with the flavor. We go through about 20 to 40 20-pound bags of charcoal a week.” Cooking time is about three hours, and Montoya constantly has a batch on the rotisserie so it can come “flying” to your table, hot and juicy. Portions range from a quarter chicken (as part of the $4.99 lunch special) to a half-chicken dinner and all the way up to the family-sized serving of one and a half birds. Even the chopped-up bits in the arroz con pollo (chicken with rice and veggies) are delicious.

Montoya came to America with his father, Jairo Montoya, when he was six. Over the next 16 years, as they made regular visits back home, they had plenty of opportunities to compare fast-food fried chicken in the States with grandma Elvia Lopez’s roasted version. An idea dawned on them, and in 1993 Montoya and son sent away for the rotisserie and opened up the Flying Chicken. They opened Rotisseries six years later.

The neon lettering on the Flying Chicken’s front window might suggest that only takeout is available, but there are tables and chairs inside, plus Latin music or television to entertain you while you eat. It’s probably almost like having dinner in the Montoya household.

“In the beginning, we were trying to focus on the Colombian and South American market,” says Montoya, who estimates there were 12,000 Colombians then living on the city’s north side. “We used to serve only the chicken,” but as the restaurant’s popularity grew, customers would come in and request other entrees from home. Those from the coasts (Colombia touches both the Pacific and the Caribbean) would request fish dishes. “People who live in the middle part,” explains Montoya, “tend to eat fried foods like steaks and plantains. Those who live towards Bogota eat a lot of soups, like oxtail and hen,” all of which are served at the Flying Chicken on a rotating basis. Other specials include churrasco (tender strip steak, served with plantain, yuca, potato, and rice) and picada colombiana–a platter of bite-size bits of pork, sausage, spare ribs, yuca, plantains, and a cheese-topped corn cake.

In 1997, Luis gave his dad a break and took over the business. Jairo, who has relocated to the southern tip of Florida, is contemplating opening a Flying Chicken there. Meanwhile, Luis dreams of expanding the Flying Chicken franchise in Chicago, eventually opening “a more upscale authentic Colombian restaurant where the family can have some drinks and also dance to live music and eat a little more in private.” He has faith that his grandmother’s secret recipe will keep the customers coming.

The Flying Chicken is at 3811 N. Lincoln, 773-477-1090.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.