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2023 Apr

Big Chicken Flavor + a Side of Heat

Discover a new restaurant at Town Center, starring the peri-peri pepper.

It’s Monday. Hairdressers’ sabbath. A day when many restaurants take a beat.

But over at Nando’s PERi-PERi Chicken, smiling wait staff hustle between tables delivering towering sandwiches, bowls heaped with mashers, rice and peas, and colorful stoneware platters of fiery, spatchcocked chicken. Over at the register the cashier hands off sturdy paper bags filled with take out. There’s a lively b-b-beat on the sound system, and by 6 p.m., every table is full.

Nando’s, the newest eatery in Virginia Beach’s Town Center, opened in mid-February to a seemingly instant following. The Johannesburg, South Africa-born restaurant chain has locations in 24 countries from Australia to Zimbabwe, including 50 in the U.S., with more to come.

Why’s that? “You don’t get a lot of people saying they want to go out and have South African food,” said manager Alfredo Sorto.

Rather, he said, it’s the peri-peri pepper that draws them in. The diminutive firecracker, hotter than a habanero, also known as the African Bird’s Eye chili, is the bedrock of Nando’s signature dishes. Despite its 175,000 Scoville heat scale rating, when used properly it lends a balance of pepper flavor with a finish of heat.

Or, as one of our party put it, “I don’t have a mouthful of bees.”

At Nando’s, peri-peri peppers mingle with paprika, garlic, and lemon and get swirled into sauces that range on the “PERI-ometer” from “ferociously” hot to “plain-ish.” A separate counter invites customers to bring bottles of sauce to the table to custom-season their fare.

The protagonist here is the chicken, marinated for at least 24 hours before being finished on an open flame. We ordered our “Sharing Platter” of a whole chicken and two sides ($31.59) seasoned two ways: half the bird basted with medium hot sauce and half with a lemon-and-herb sauce. But timid palates, have no fear. Little flags identify which is which.

Our bird arrived warm and succulent with the right amount of char on the skin. The meaty portions from the “medium” hot side delivered a big chicken flavor with a rumor of heat. Adding an additional drizzle of “medium” sauce emphasized the unique flavor of the pepper while adding a more powerful punch of heat. And just a few drops of the “hot” sauce convinced our cayenne-loving friend to forgo the “extra hot” version.

Nando’s also packs marinated chicken into wraps, pitas, and sandwiches. We tried the Nando’s Choice ($15.79 with one side), a thick, double breast of chicken stacked inside a Portuguese bun bursting with creamy coleslaw. It’s a filling sandwich made more memorable—and satisfyingly spicy—by adding a flourish of lemon and herb sauce.

One in our party reminisced about the time she ate at the Washington, D.C., location, and was set on slaking her longing for one of Nando’s signature sides: Macho peas.

This vivid green mash studded with whole peas ($2.99) is seasoned with mint, garlic, parsley, and the slightest hint of chili. It’s the standout among a slate of sides that includes super-fresh salads, requisite Brussels sprouts, turmeric-roasted cauliflower, charred sweet potatoes, and crispy, buttery garlic bread that we all agreed would be worth picking up for a dinner party of any ethnicity.

Sanely priced kids meals ($6.49-$6.79 with a side and drink) cater to tender palates—grilled cheese, chicken tenders, and grilled chicken.

Post pandemic, we’ve experienced spotty restaurant service in all sorts of venues. Not so at Nando’s. Company loyalty among the pleasant, efficient staff was palpable. Two shared that they had been with Nando’s for years, moving up the ranks. There’s a real sense of pride in this company that runs programs here and abroad to provide opportunities and remove young peoples’ barriers to employment such as childcare or gaps in work history.

While here, do take a moment to appreciate the decor. Through Nando’s “Portal to Africa” program, restaurant designers select a palette of furniture and interior design from up-and-coming South African artists. The Town Center location’s orange and earth tones and the round tables and banquettes that invite conversation and sharing make it a great spot for families or date night, too.

Then there’s this: on the way out we noticed a sign touting peri-peri cheese and mac. We’ll be back!

Lorraine Eaton

Lorraine Eaton, former Staff Epicure at the Virginian-Pilot, is co-author of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Virginia,” and author of “Tidewater Table,” a local bestseller. She has won numerous state and national writing awards, and her work has been included in “Best Food Writing,” an annual anthology of the best American work in the genre. Lorraine has a daughter, Peyton, who is attending university. She resides in Virginia Beach.

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