Breasts, Thighs, and Zings Hot Chicken and cold shoulder in Chinatown; burgers from hell in Arlington

Revenge of the Birds: The chickens at Nando’s bite back.
Darrow Montgomery

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.

Hell, Yes

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.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

Our Readers Say

I stopped reading after you mentioned that you got to the chicken place 10 min before closing. You deserve everything you got.
Awesome comment, Mark. You must be the pride of your workplace.
-Tim
Assumptions will take you nowhere Tim.
I just happen to be considerate to service people that would rather go home to their families after a hard day of work running around on their feet.
This has nothing to do with being considerate to hard-working staff, which I always am, even when they are not. It has to do with honoring the hours posted on your store front. It is also about giving you what you pay for. Are you against that, Mark? Oh wait, you didn't read that far in the story, because you were so offended.
Exactly, Mark! It takes some nerve (or a total lack of empathy) to walk into a place 10 minutes before it closes and then complain publicly over pretty minor oversights by the already not happy staff.
Yes, they were not happy, and they didn't mind letting me know about it.
First i'm a restaurant worker and now i am offended? Your cristal ball is not working properly today Tim.
Honoring the hours posted? How about being considerate to others? I wont play your game and pretend to know what you do but I bet that if your boss gives you an assignment right before you leave the office and you cant leave until you are finished you would be pissed too.
Mark and Susie,

Okay, if we can tone down the rhetoric some, here's what I think in a calm, rational voice. Yes, I would not be happy to have an assignment thrown on me at the last minute. Yes, I would grumble. But I hope I would not grumble to the customer, who is different than the boss. The customer is paying you money for a service and a product; as an employee, you have a contract with them to treat them as well as possible, no matter what's going on behind the scenes. To do otherwise is a breech of your responsibility.

Also, if you talk to most restaurateurs (which I do regularly), they will tell you that they'll always serve customers who arrive right before closing time. They will do so happily (at least outwardly, which is all a customer can ask for) because they know it's good business. Rudeness is never good business. Do you disagree?
Correct me if i am wrong but now it seems that you agree on the fact that it is not nice to go into a restaurant right before they close, when everybody is looking forward to going back home, but you do it anyway because they "have to" serve you.
Even though I agree with you regarding the restaurateurs mentality, i'm sure you know that they are nowwhere around the place at that time. This is about the poor guy or girl that has to stay there until you are satisfied.
Mark, I went there because I was seriously hungry (seriously)...and wanted to check it out. There was no intention to hassle the staff. End of story.
One final note: Nando's is not a full-service restaurant. It's counter service. We placed our order, we sat down, and semi-happily ate as the employees did their usual clean-up work.
Enough said.
Wow... this exchange was interesting. I can definitely understand how someone working at any establishment to be a little irritated if a customer walked in 10 minutes before closing (I worked in retail years ago, so I can relate... you want to go home after standing on your feet for 8+ hours). But Tim has a point: unless he went into the restaurant and was a complete jerk, they are supposed to be courteous. Customer service goes with the profession of working with customers, obviously. No customer (ultimately) cares if you had a bad day or if you're tired. They are paying for a service, and if they are following directions and coming in before the restaurant closes, then they should be respected as someone helping to keep the lights on. And please note that I know personally that customers don't care about anything but what they are paying for... that's why I don't work with customers anymore... my customer is my computer and my office! :)
Couple of responses to the comments and the article. First, this isn't a typical sit down restaurant. You walk up to the counter and order your food like a McDonalds. So don't think that showing up 10 minutes before closing meant they were holding a server to a section for an extra hour.

Second, I've been to Nando's in Chinatown at noon, at 2, at 4, and at 7 PM. The service is always and I mean ALWAYS unbearably bad. I have called in orders, only to wait 35 minutes to actually pay for and receive them once I showed up at the agreed upon time. To bypass this, I attempted to walk in and order carry out and pre-pay so as to avoid waiting in line the second time around... no such luck. The system set up for ordering and paying is horrendous and the servers can't seem to figure out what they're doing.

As for the food, I was less impressed. The chicken is extremely fatty and kind of slimey to the touch. The flavor isn't bad, but it's not amazing. I've ordered it a few times and found that some orders are better than others, but overall the experience has left me less than satisfied. The Haloumi cheese is pretty damn good, but there is only a tiny piece for $1.50, and as for getting a side order of olives (which I'd at first assumed would be free along with the spicy nuts, not so) don't waste your money.

As fast food places go, the quality at Nando's is reasonable, but if I'm going to wait an hour for take out from an unapologetic staff who walks away from me in mid sentence every time the phone rings and charges $50.00 for a lunch for 3, I'm gonna need a little more.
Interesting thread! While I understand the business angle of established hours, it's unfortunate that employees working this shift will most likely be fired due to this review. Walking into a restaurant right before closing is rude to the hardworking staff so their annoyance is expected.
O Xeno gave a better critique than this reviewer. How do you go to a restaurant one time, ten minutes before closing and then write a review about how the service stinks? What are we as readers supposed to take away from this type of article? Don't try to sneak in as they are locking the door?

I'm going to surmise that the reviewer was just getting his food as they were locking the doors, complaining about cheese as they were shutting down the registers, sucking on chicken bones and thinking up a clever play on words like foul/fowl as staff was sweeping up....

Good one City Paper.
Greg;

It's hard to tell with this online version, which is missing the icon found in the print edition, but this particular Young & Hungry is another one of my "Dishing Expeditions." The concept is different from a standard review: The idea is that each mini review is based on one simple visit, which, like it or not, is how most people (without unlimited budget and time) judge restaurants out there in the real world. All of the items above, not just Nando's, is based on a single visit. It may not be fair, but it's an accurate representation of my feelings and experiences during that one particular visit, rather a synthesis and an overly tidy ordering of my experiences in a standard review. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks, if you ask me, which you didn't.

-Tim
I thought this was an article about a chicken place. Apparently, it's a venue for douche bags to complain. No one cares who is behind the counter when a store is open. Just do your crappy job half assed, as is expected, and everyone will be happy.
There you go Tim. You and bob should go out together. Get a couple of cosmos.
This discussion is interesting in that it's related to the philosophy of restaurant operating hours.

A restaurant's operating hours should indicate the time that the restaurant opens until the last possible time that someone can enter and be served. Otherwise, if 10 minutes before close is not acceptable, it should not be indicated as the "close" time, rather, 10 minutes before should be. By creating a stigma that entering a restaurant 10, 15, or even 30 minutes prior to the posted close time is inconsiderate, you have effectively made the posted operating hours meaningless to the customer.

Therefore, if a restaurant says they close at 9 PM, then 9 PM should be the last time that someone can enter the restaurant, eat at an ordinary pace, and receive the full treatment. Notice that I say *should*, since this is almost never the case, however, it would make much more sense if it were.
Philosophy of operating hours?? All i "notice" is that you are trying hard to come across as "smart" when it probably took you 45 minutes or more to put that comment together. Keep justifying your behavior with philosophy all you want but now you know that you are annoying everybody there.
Bottom line: Don't enter a fucking restaurant of any kind a few minutes before closing. The cooks will "make impure" your food. If that's what you like to eat, go for it.
Wow, after reading the comments from the restaurant folks, I think I just won't enter restaurants at all, no matter what the time.
Good! The less fucking customers that come in, the less fucking work we have to do. And if the restaurant goes under (it will, eventually), it's on to the next one. Bollocks!
If the staff feels that it is too late to serve a patron, they should just tell the patron (Sorry, we just started cleaning the grill. . . etc.). If they ring up an order, they should provide the food paid for, and do so without a sneer. I've worked in the food service industry many years, and it can be highly unpleasant, but if you make the decision to serve a customer right before closing, you should do so without an attitude.

By the way, I thought the tone of this review was far milder than the comments would lead one to believe.

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