Once upon a time, the world was huge and seemingly never ending in its scope. There was always some foreign, unknown land waiting just on the other side of the horizon. Cultures were spread out, isolated, and only truly knew their closest neighbours. Now, in our age of jet planes and the internet, the world seems smaller, more networked and multicultural than ever. Maybe that’s how we got such interesting things as Nando’s Chicken: a Portuguese chicken restaurant that started in South Africa and soon became a global sensation.
When visiting a Nando’s restaurant, one word you’ll probably notice a lot it “peri peri”. Peri peri is a type of small, red chili pepper–a variation of the African Bird’s Eye, to be exact–that is grown in South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and other African countries. It may seem somewhat off-putting to some restaurant goers, to see a place put so much emphasis on a hot pepper, but rest assured, Nando’s is not trying to assassinate your taste buds. Nando’s definitely caters better to people who like spice because it enhances the flavour of the meal, and might disappoint those who get some kind of masochistic pleasure out of bathing their mouths in pure, concentrated hellfire.
Indeed, spice is a difficult thing to please people with. Many foodies have a low tolerance for spice, and rightly find it hard to enjoy something that has them reaching for the glass of water after every bite. Other people, like myself, eat spicy food regularly, and find too little seasoning makes things bland and cool. And then there’s the masochists, who carry hip flasks of Sriracha everywhere they go, took the Ghost Pepper challenge on a dare, and will complain if their meal doesn’t give them hallucinations of Satan laughing at their face. It’s a tricky balance. How do you make sure to add just the right amount of spice for your guest?
Simple. Make the customer do it themselves. Nando’s does this in two ways, and the first is admittedly an old trick taken from pretty much any Mexican or BBQ place. When you order your chicken, you get a choice of how hot, on a scale of: mild [the classic Peri Peri seasoning without heat], Lemon and Herb [replaces heat with tang], medium [normal heat], hot [try it if you like fire], and extra hot [try it only if you’re the kind of person who would willingly let a Tarantula Hawk Wasp sting you, just to see what it feels like*]. After you choose the spiciness of your chicken, Nando’s has a table full of each of their hot sauces, for you to take and compare for yourself. I recommend taking one of each and trying them all! That’s what I did, and I’ll write the results down below.
*Yes, someone actually did that. It’s on YouTube.
Nando’s has four hot sauces for customers to try: medium, hot, extra hot and garlic. They also have different types of salad dressings, which I didn’t try because of an excuse I have yet to come up with. The hotter a sauce is, the darker it is in colour, helping to distinguish them if you’re too lazy to read the label. All of the sauces have distinctive undertones of both smokiness and acidity, and noticeably lack either overwhelming heat or sweetness. This complements the Peri Peri chicken, which brings its own smokiness in the form of light char from the grill.
Medium: has the most acidity of all the sauces, and also the mildest heat.
Hot: a good balance between Medium’s sauciness and Extra Hot’s pepperyness. I personally found this the best sauce, because to me it had the most “classic” Peri Peri flavour. Slightly hotter than medium.
Extra Hot: you can definitely taste more of the pepper flesh in this sauce, giving it a light bitter taste to it that I liked. Not nearly as spicy as the name implies, it merely tasted different from the other sauces, not hotter.
Garlic: very, very garlicy, but with just enough pepper to balance it, creating a tantalizing blend aroma and spice. The heat is on level with Extra Hot. If your dining partner doesn’t like this sauce, they have a 43.7% chance of being a vampire. Just so you know.
Okay, so that’s that for the sauces, the condiments of the food. What about the actual food itself? Hang on, hang on, we’re getting to that.
I had two quarter chickens–both with the leg and thigh–with a side of Peri Peri wedges and side of veggies. I had the two quarters because of a coupon deal; I recommend just getting the half chicken, it’s cheaper just to pay for another side. My mom had the chicken skewers. My chicken was medium-hot, hers was given the lemon and herb treatment.
When it comes, the chicken is hot off the grill, but cool enough to eat. It has been cooked to the perfect amount, with its outer skin bearing a light, delicate grid of char, and the inner meat is nearly bursting for how juicy it is. The skin is tender and rubbed in the spice rub of your choosing, infusing the whole piece with multiple layers of spice and heat. The skewers get a similar treatment, but the meat is noticeably dryer. Still tender and quite delicious, but if you prefer your chicken wetter, get it on the bone.
As for the sides, Peri Peri wedges come in the biggest proportion, which is great because Nando’s can be a little bit stingy when it comes to filling your plate. The potatoes are fresh, hand cut, plump and mildly seasoned with salt and Peri Peri pepper. They are useful for trying out the hot sauces, although the chicken allows you to explore more of the heat and overall flavour. This is a good side to get: similar to french fries, but meatier and more interesting.
The veggies are mostly large pieces of bell pepper, with some smaller bits of zucchini and onion. The whole blend sits in a wet sauce that douses the veggies in a backnote of the Peri Peri sauce, so you can experience the Nando’s signature throughout your meal. The veggies are stewed just to the point that they are no longer crunchy, allowing them to retain most of their toothiness and freshness. The onions have been treated so that they no longer taste raw, making them a comforting addition to the blend instead of something jarring and painful.
There are two more things I want to mention. First, be it the chicken or the side dishes, stay warm for a really long time, almost unnaturally so. One thing you should know about me, is that I am a notoriously slow eater. I usually end a meal eating something that went cold, so I greatly enjoy when my food retains at least some of its original temperature.
Secondly, I have something kind of negative to say. Well I can say many great things about Nando’s, one thing you will not hear anyone say is that they are generous with their food. Don’t get me wrong, the food is rich, flavourful and plentiful enough so that you don’t feel ripped off, but the portions are a little on the small side. If you’re someone like me, and have a high metabolism, Nando’s might not fill you as much as other places. If you eat really quickly, forget it. The chicken is pretty well-portioned, but side dishes are noticeable smaller. In that regard, Nando’s is pretty similar to Popeye’s, as far as portion control goes.
Given that Nando’s is a chain, the decor differs from place to place. They don’t have the uniform consistency of most chain restaurants, like–for instance–McDonald’s [which is good because I hate McDonald’s]. One place may be bright, spacious and social, another could be smaller, dimmer and more intimate. Regardless, colourful artwork is displayed, depicting various aspects of Portuguese and South African culture, and African classic rock plays over the radio. The decor is just radiant enough to give the restaurant character, but not to the point of being distracting. The walls do not confuse the eye, the music does not deafen the ears, but it is enough to remind you that you are sitting in a Nando’s, instead of–say–a McDonald’s. Which is good. Because you should hate McDonald’s.
Both of the times I have been to a Nando’s restaurant, the service has been polite and fairly quick to deliver your food. One thing that is a little odd with Nando’s is how you order. Even though they have wait staff and all that, customers read the menu and place their order at the counter, like you would at a fast food place.
Free refills! Any drink or frozen yogurt you get has infinite free refills, so you can pig out to your heart’s content, or at least until the manager arrives to inform you that you emptied all the reserves. Also, Nando’s uses those do-it-yourself beverage machines like the kind at Subway and Mc-Awful’s, so you can create whatever fanciful, strange, horrible concoction you desire. I like adding small shots of various flavours until I get a combination I really like, and forget because there are over a twenty different ingredients.
The prices are alright, a little expensive for a cheapskate like me, but definitely affordable. If the portions were bigger, I would even say they’re downright reasonable. As long as you go into Nando’s expecting to be satisfied with a variety of flavour, and not by stuffing your face, you’ll be happy.
Nando’s is a unique chain restaurant of spicy, radiant grilled chicken that focuses on its patented style of cooking with the Peri Peri hot pepper. Its music and colourful decor add vibrancy to the place, but are not powerful enough to distract or overwhelm the diner. Food here is leaning towards the expensive side–especially when considering portion size–but they are still reasonable. The emphasis here is on flavour over pure heat or large portions. One should evaluate their expectations before coming to Nando’s. If you’re looking to have your head blown off with heat, or eat to the point of being full and taking the leftovers home with you, then you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a meal with an original, diverse palate of wonderful spices, and warm, juicy chicken, then Nando’s is the place for you.
Nando’s Chicken 617 Danforth Avenue or 1968 Queen Street East