819 7th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
Nando’s is a South African restaurant chain with locations throughout DC and Maryland, serving up a signature Portuguese/Mozambican speciality: peri-peri (pronounced “piri-piri”) chicken. Peri-peri is the local name for an African Bird’s Eye Chili, grown throughout sub-Saharan Africa. How the pepper came to Portugal is a mystery, but eventually Portuguese and Mozambican (Mozambique being a former Portuguese colony) culinary exchanges gave rise to a peri-peri sauce made from the pepper. The sauce is a staple on southern African and Portuguese tables, and is applied liberally to chicken breast grilled over a spit: peri-peri chicken. Nando’s was founded by members of South Africa’s Portuguese-Mozambican community, and has since expanded to 30 restaurants on 5 continents. Unfortunately, they have only recently made inroads in the USA, and only in the DC metro area. That is unfortunate, Nando’s definitely hits the spot for your stateside peri-peri craving and is well worth a visit.
On a recent trip to DC, M visited Nando’s Chinatown location (hence the Chinese characters on the sign) – probably their most popular location in the city. Nando’s logo is a representation of the Rooster of Barcelos, the Portuguese national symbol, and appropriate here because the rooster’s large eye makes one think of the Bird’s Eye Chili.
Nando’s does an excellent job of serving up presumably fast food in an upscale setting. Wood paneling and good lighting make for a sophisticated interior, and a central plexiglas wall – actually filled with dried peppers – is a nice touch. The walls are decorated with original works from South African artists, part of Nando’s ever-expanding art collection (now 4,000 pieces) which also offers scholarships to young artists back in Africa. The uniqueness of the food and their commitment to the arts really made me want to like this place, so it is lucky the food delivered.
For the relatively upscale vibe, the ordering is simple. You can choose from many entrees, but if we are being honest (and we always are) there is no point in getting anything besides the chicken: pick a half or whole breast, choose your spiciness level, and choose between 0 and 3 side dishes. I selected the extra spicy chicken (of course), with sides of Portuguese rice and a mayo-heavy coleslaw, to reduce the heat from the chicken if need be. After ordering they give you a cute table marker and you proceed to your spot, waiting for the food to be delivered to you.
The chicken was – and I cannot overstate this – perfect. Grilled to perfection with just the right amount of marinade, Nando’s then lathered on the peri-peri to add the extra heat I requested. But the flavors come through as well: peri-peri is a complex sauce, loaded with spices and contrasting flavors, and Nando’s variety brought out all the high notes from the pepper as well as the other ingredients. I thought these paired nicely with the rice, which was satisfying though underwhelming. I probably would not get the coleslaw again: it was very good as far as coleslaw goes, but the menu was correct in suggesting it would cut off the heat, which it did almost too well. Next time, I’d order something not as heavy as a side, reserving the slaw for less spice-inclined diners. Overall, for under $15, this was a steal for a weekday lunch. I hope Nando’s is able to expand and open up more locations in the USA, because they would do well given their business model. But if they stray from their signature sauce and effective grilling as a result of the expansion there will be major issues. I’m just thrilled to see good, fast, transnational cuisine like this making inroads in the USA – for now, if you are in the DC area, definitely stop by for a great lunch!