One bite into her pita, and my wife, Carrie, has started to hiccup. She’s somewhat prone to these spasmodic outbursts whenever she eats hot food, but neither of us really expected the cooks to bring the heat at Nando’s Peri-Peri in Chinatown, the very first U.S. outpost of the international grilled chicken chain. We had obviously been expecting the American version of peri-peri chicken, the kind you’d expect them to serve to, you know, the camera-toting schlubs and daddies pushing double-wides around here.
But Carrie’s hiccupping loudly—when, that is, she’s not plugging her nose and holding her breath, which just makes her whole body quake with the force of those seismic contractions. For my part, my nose has started to drip from the heat of my grilled chicken, a quarter section of breast and thigh meat slathered with peri-peri sauce. It’s not until I round us up a glass of water—and Carrie drinks the liquid through a napkin, my fool-proof way of curing the hiccups—that we can begin to evaluate our meals.
If I’m surprised by the heat at Nando’s, I’m equally surprised by how much I enjoyed my meal. My first impression of the place, after all, was not good. Yes, the space is inviting—a wood-heavy dining room that looks like a cross between a Chipotle and an art gallery—but the staff possesses the sort of good cheer that you usually find in a club bouncer. I can understand (if not condone) the semi-rude behavior we encountered when Carrie and I walked in the door 10 minutes before closing, but I can’t ignore the fact that they neglected to bring us the grilled halloumi cheese and pineapple slice that we ordered. Or that they asked for my receipt when I pointed out the minor oversight. Or that they didn’t give me back the receipt once I handed it over. Or that they only gave us a few, barely grilled slices of cheese for $1.50.
The shabby treatment left me with a foul taste in my mouth that I thought no fowl could remove. I was wrong. Never mind that the quarter chicken, saw-toothed sections of thigh and breast meat, looked like it was butchered by Stalin after his eighth shot of vodka. The flavors were absolutely Wagnerian in their subtlety—a wave of sourness, a blast of garlic, a sucker punch of pepper, none of which completely drowned that excellent grill flavor. I recommend ordering it “hot”—you have the option of “medium,” “hot,” “extra hot,” or “lemon & herb” style, the last of which, I think, would be like dining at the Prime Rib and opting for a salad.
Even better than the chicken itself was its interplay with my glass of Cara Viva white wine, one of a handful of Portuguese cheapies available here. It wasn’t just the dramatic change of temperatures that delighted me, like when you step from a steamy sauna and into a cool shower; no, it was also the wine’s easy-to-please flavors, which calmed my irritated tongue with its soft fruit and mild citrus acidity.
The Portuguese wine list is no accident. It plays off the oft-cited ancestry of peri-peri sauce, which goes something like this: After the Portuguese colonized the countries of Mozambique and Angola, they either discovered these blazing bird’s-eye chilies already growing there or introduced the New World peppers to Africa; either way, the colonialists started cooking down the peppers into a paste, which they mixed with ingredients widely available in Portugal (like lemon and olive oil) until—bam!—a new sauce was born. It’s a good story—and dreadfully Eurocentric. I could not find anything to definitively prove the sauce’s origin, and modern history is no help: Peri-peri sauce is now commonly used in both Portugal and West Africa.
Not that my detective work likely would have made much difference to the South African founders of the massive Nando’s chain, which has locations in more than 25 countries worldwide, including Malawi, Swaziland, and our little outlet in Chinatown (819 7th St. NW; 202-898-1225). These dudes are smart marketers. What, after all, would you rather eat? Portuguese grilled chicken or Angolan grilled chicken?
Bethesda Chop Shop
Todd Wiss, the new executive chef at Black’s Bar and Kitchen (7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-5525), has just started to put his stamp on the menu, and if my first meal under his watch is any indication, the former Poste Moderne Brasserie sous chef has a taste for big flavors—big as in Spanish anchovies, chicken liver mousse, and lots of vinegar applications. I dare you to find a combination of flavors as bold as Wiss’ “bruschetta,” which layers roasted red peppers, olive tapenade, boquerones, and arugula pesto on top of grilled rustic bread. Somehow, against all the laws of cooking and warfare, the aggressive elements are not warring factions but harmonious neighbors.
I wish I could say the same thing about Wiss’ roasted Berkshire pork chop, a beautifully architectural piece of meat with almost zero flavor. The accompanying stewed apricots were supposed to supply the requisite dose of sweetness, but the fruit has been cooked down in what tasted like a vat of vinegar, turning these pork bites into something far too tart for my tastes. It was bold, yes, but bold in a harsh, Bill O’Reilly sort of way.
How good is the titular sandwich at Ray’s Butcher Burgers (aka Ray’s Hell Burgers) in Arlington? It’s so good that even when chef Michael Landrum’s team neglects to season the freshly ground patties, the burger still pounds the competition into submission. Landrum told me that the kitchen had cut back on the seasonings after a few customers complained that their burgers were too salty, particularly when paired with bacon. The kitchen, he surmised, had clearly overcompensated. It barely made a difference with my first Hell burger.
The secret to Landrum’s hamburger is his blend, which incorporates hunks of aged, center-cut meats left over after the kitchen portions out the New York strips, the rib-eyes, the hangers, and fillets at Ray’s the Steaks, located just a few doors up from Ray’s Hell Burgers (1713 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-0001). The steakhouse cuts are then combined with the choicest parts—and not just the trimmings—of the sirloin, chuck, and other parts of the cow. It makes for the deepest, beefiest burger you’ll ever taste.
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