One bustling weekend evening, an attendant directed us into a spot in the jam-packed parking lot of Pollos Mario in Hempstead. Inside, I found a space brightly decorated to resemble an indoor courtyard somewhere in South America. Even more compelling than the decor, though, was the sight of row after row of trussed-up chickens turning on a huge rotisserie, their skins burnished to varying shades of mahogany.
At a restaurant whose first name translates as "chicken," poultry would seem a must-order. Even if you don't decide on the rotisseried bird for your lunch or dinner entree, you feel almost obliged to get one to go for later on. I've had the chicken both inside the restaurant and at home; it's unfailingly juicy and flavorsome -- although, not surprisingly, best when hot right off the spit.

At first glance, the menu can give one a feeling of sensory overload. There are colorful photos of virtually every dish, along with English translations. The mostly bilingual waitstaff seems eager to offer suggestions to diners not entirely fluent in Spanish.

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"Consome de menudencias" translates into chicken soup, the kind of soul-warming starter that's so right this time of year. I relished every spoonful of the homey stock replete with root vegetables, fresh chopped cilantro and bone-in pieces of poultry, gizzards and all. As an appetizer, one evening, four of us shared a plate of fried sweet caramelized plantains, which were irresistible. Arepas (corn cakes), popular in Colombian cuisine, can all too often be heavy and bland. Here, an order of arepas con queso -- corn cakes topped with melted cheese -- proved addictive. A special of shrimp grilled on skewers made of sugar cane were sweet and succulent.

A favorite entree of mine turned out to be grilled chicken thighs, which oozed smoky juices when pricked with a fork. In fact, I actually preferred the chicken done that way to the rotisserie-roasted style.

The restaurant's name notwithstanding, the kitchen is adept at cooking more than just poultry. A friend ordered a dish called entraña, a juicy, savory skirt steak served with a baked potato, salad (iceberg and uninspired), rice and beans. The expertly grilled meat, which nearly overhung the plate, was tender and infused with smokiness. At $16.95, it amounted to a steal. Pargo rojo (a whole fried red snapper), was crisp and greaseless on the outside, moist and snowy within. I also enjoyed the filete al horno, a baked tilapia filet in a rich, bubbling garlicky sauce.

A traditional Colombian finale of figs with cheese played the sweet against the salty. Admittedly, this may not be everybody's idea of the ideal dessert. What I particularly liked was the flan de las tres leches, a creamy, clean-tasting conclusion to a meal of lively Latin flavors.