Cluck If You Like It Hot!
Nando's Portuguese chicken is coming to Bethesda.
My Portuguese friend Isabelle gushes about Nando’s Peri Peri, a new restaurant set to open on Bethesda Avenue this summer. This chicken, she says, captures the beloved flavors of her homeland. Curious to taste what draws raves from so many people, I decided to venture into Silver Spring to eat at Nando’s with my family.
We arrived on a weekday evening and were instructed to remember the number assigned to our table. Then, our server told us to look over the menu and go to their bar to order. Sounds simple enough, but you would laugh at how many people forget their table number; probably because they’re too busy deciding what to order (including yours truly). But that’s another story.
The chicken is the star at Nando’s, and you’ll find it prepared in four types of Peri Peri sauce with varying levels of heat--mild, medium, hot and extra hot. There’s also a tangy lemon/herb or mango/lime sauce—neither of these citrus-based sauces are hot. The menu has other choices--salads, wraps, appetizers, sandwiches and interesting sides. However, let me remind you, the chicken is the star. You’ll miss out if you don’t order it.
Peri Peri is a type of pepper that was originally introduced to Portuguese explorers in Mozambique. These same adventurous Portuguese moved on to settle in South Africa. Africans use peri peri peppers in a multitude of dishes; usually in sauces poured over chicken or fish (pronounced “peedy peedy” by Isabelle, but some in Africa spell it Piri Piri).
One smart duo, aka famed owners “Fernando and Robert,” loved the chicken at Chickenland in South Africa, bought the restaurant and changed its name. Today, Nando’s restaurants are found in 34 countries and nine continents. The Washington area is fortunate that the company chose to open a U.S. franchise here. Nando’s currently has locations in Annapolis, Penn Quarter, Adam’s Morgan, and soon Bethesda and Gaithersburg.
The chicken is glistening with marinade, and extremely juicy (Nando’s provides towelettes and a classy-looking sink in the dining room for this reason). They cut the chicken Portuguese-style, in half, so it arrives with a wing connected to the breast, and the thigh connected to the leg. The chicken is not large, but it is tender with a distinctive flavor—different from Peruvian, Mexican, barbeque or roasted. Grilled on an open flame, the fat drips out, and it has lovely char marks on it. The "medium" chicken tasted a little peanutty, vinegary and the heat was mostly secondary to the peri peri's indescribable flavor.
Actual Peri Peri peppers are small, red and extremely hot. A recipe for Nando’s Peri Peri sauce employs two types of peppers—African bird’s-eye, Serrano, also vinegar, sunflower oil, garlic, paprika, lemon juice and cayenne. To maximize the sauce experience, you can order wings rather than pieces of chicken.
You won’t be disappointed by the sides though. My favorite was their “Macho Peas” dish--a type of pea puree mixed with whole peas; then spiced with parsley, peppers and mint. The red-skinned mashed potatoes with garlic butter make an ideal receptacle for additional sauce. You are free to bring the bottles of Peri Peri sauces to your table (which vary in heat factor) to lavish on everything, including French fries. My husband wanted to buy a bottle of the Peri Peri medium sauce, but the line was too long.
The traditional sides include Portuguese spicy yellow rice with peppers (which Isabelle says isn’t really Portuguese because they usually eat white rice where she's from), cole slaw, garlic bread, fries and grilled corn-on-the-cob. The “Fino Sides” are “deluxe” compared to the small side portions that come with a chicken order. The Fino’s are unusual dishes like butternut squash with corn, or the Portuguese Medley–which bathes tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, pitted black olives, and hunks of feta in a lemon oil dressing. The garlic bread seems to be a big hit with kids, and overall, I would say that all ages of children like this restaurant. There were dozens of families licking their fingers with satisfaction.
Nando’s has a few desserts which I didn’t sample, but the chocolate spoon cake sounds rich and delicious. They also have cupcakes, raspberry brulee cheesecake, dulce de leche cheesecake, carrot cake and bottomless frozen yoghurt designed to “put out the Peri Peri fire.” The service is mostly generated by the customer. The servers bring your order to your table and check back frequently. You gather your own silverware, napkins and drinks, including water. The décor is rustic and has an African influence. It’s a comfortable place that, I predict, is going to be welcomed by both eat-in and take-out diners alike.
So, I look forward to having Nando's in Bethesda. I think our very international and well-traveled community will be thrilled to find that this popular restaurant they may have tried in Europe and Africa will soon be in our neighborhood. Bom Provieto (enjoy) as they say in Portugal!