Let’s start with the good: Has there ever been a fast-food joint as dazzling as Nando’s Peri-Peri? In looks, it is to McDonald’s as Prada is to Payless.
Done up with artfully roughed-up wood, long leather booths, and a night sky’s worth of twinkling pendant lights, this order-at-the-counter chicken chain—the first stateside outpost of the popular South Africa–based franchise—feels more like a cousin to its Penn Quarter neighbor Rasika, the stylized Indian fusion restaurant.
Yet all the design flair couldn’t stop my mind from drifting as I dug into a grilled half bird ($8.95 with one side dish). I kept wishing for the chargrilled chicken ($13.89 for a half) I’d torn into a few weeks earlier at a Silver Spring dive called Pollo Brasero.
Pollo Brasero is Nando’s conceptual opposite, the kind of place that has sticky tables, plastic knives, and a static-riddled TV on the wall. But the Peruvian-style chicken, caked with spices that infuse the meat down to the bone, was so irresistible that I could barely part with the carcass, figuring there had to be some meat left to nibble on. The sweet plantains ($1.89) were so good that I ordered another round.
That’s not to say the chicken at Nando’s is bad—it’s just not terribly memorable. The birds are meaty but lean toward the dry side. The marinades, which range from the timid (an artificial-tasting lemon-herb) to the incendiary (hot and extra-hot blends from peri-peri chilies), liven them up, as do drizzles of vinegary peri-peri sauce.
And though Nando’s sugary sparkling sangría ($14.95 a carafe) makes you wonder if the bartender forgot to add the hard stuff, the sides are better than you’ll find at most rotisseries, with a bright-tasting coleslaw ($2.25), Thanksgiving-worthy roasted butternut squash with cranberries ($4.45), and a cooling Portuguese salad with cucumbers, feta, and olives ($3.95).
The generous bowl of oil-slicked mixed olives and garlic cloves ($3.75) makes a nice start, and a roasted, peri-peri-basted portobello mushroom served on a Portuguese roll ($7.95) with salty halloumi cheese, chili jam, and an add-on ring of pineapple ($1) is a genuine find.
If you’re in need of a cheap date spot that won’t make you look cheap, Nando’s is your place. But if you’re looking for knock-out-great chicken? Head for Silver Spring.
This review appeared in the November, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.