Good in a Pinch: Nando's Peri-Peri

Once upon a time, there was delicious Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken in Baltimore - chicken so delicious it drew the masses from all walks of life. Racial tensions and other petty rivalries eased as the city's denizens crowded into the tiny entryway of La Rotisseria for magically seasoned and always cooked to perfection chicken with beans, rice, and the best green sauce ever made. And, every once in a while, a small selection of hand-made papusas that always sold out almost immediately. That little storefront carry-out place was my first taste of papusas, and of Peruvian style chicken. And to date it has been the best.

Sadly, the owner retired some 10 years ago now and moved to Ann Arbor so his wife could teach college. La Rotisseria remained for a brief period afterward under new ownership. They retained the staff, but it wasn't the same. There were no more papusas. They started skinning the chickens. And, when I stumbled in one Friday evening at the tail end of Happy Hour, they charged me for extra green sauce. The guy working the counter recognized me as a regular and tried to slip me some for free. He got caught. He got reprimanded - right there in front of me. When he explained that I had been coming there for years and was one of their best customers, the new owner (without even looking at me) said she didn't care.

Well, that was enough for me. I dropped a curse on the place, invoking the Old Ones with an open heart and strong conviction to ensure the new owner went out of business within six months. I spoke my curse with intent and sealed it with my own spit blown onto her threshold. I looked her in the eye for a long moment and then turned and stumbled out. And, six months later, she was gone. But I was drunk and my curse scattered, and so it was several years before any take-out place established a footing there for more than six months. Now it's a sub shop, and Peruvian-style chicken joints are all over the place.

With the completion of the Hyatt Place hotel on Central, there came space for some additional restaurants (because what Harbor East really needs is more eateries, right?) Among the new offerings is the Peruvian chicken chain Nando's Peri-Peri. Now I know I can drive a mile or so into the heart of near-by Spanishtown and get some really banging Peruvian chicken at Chicken Rico on Eastern, but for lunchtime, you can't do better than right across the street.

But Nando's has some problems, and the first thing I noticed was trouble in the layout of the front of the house. Few things irk me more than a restaurant that is designed to create a pile-up at the front door, and Nando's in Baltimore is set up to do just that. There is one single door leading in. There is a greeter who hands you a menu and then has to point you in the right direction, and where he directs you is toward an endless line - which is actually two lines - people who are waiting to order, and people who have already ordered and are waiting for their food. Add a single wait station for a single server to key in sit-down orders plus one counter for everyone to pick up their food and you have complete chaos. I ended up directing people to the right line to order while the lone waitress weaved in and out of the crowd.

Nando's menu is pretty good. There are several cuts of chicken - either quarter, half, or whole - and your choice of sauce from mild herb to what they describe as a fierce and fiery dragon in a furnace. I ordered the sauce one step below that one. And while I was looking for plantains (which they don't have) I was happy to see peas on the menu. Their sides also include grilled corn on the cob, Peruvian rice, and mashed potatoes. They also offer sandwiches, salads, and platters to share. I ordered a quarter chicken (dark meat) with fries and the peas. and rejoined the masses to wait for my food.

Nando's offers all of their sauces for you to take with you in little portion control cups, which is nice. I served myself a portion of the fierce and fiery dragon sauce and waited. And waited. And waited. For about 20 minutes. This gave me the opportunity to not only continue directing traffic, but to also observe the operation a little more closely.

The chicken is cut and cooked on a large grill rather than the rotisserie chicken I can get elsewhere. It looks like a pretty good setup for mass-production. The sides are also set up for quick serving but are stored in a manner that I found wholly inappropriate.

And here we come to another restaurant peeve of mine - improper food storage. This might not be that big a deal to some, but it is to me. Those guys have their hot sides pre-cooked and stored in serving containers in the setup area. This is all good and does make for quick turn around. My problem was that these steaming-hot sides were being stored in plastic. Heat and plastic do not mix. They don't. Google it. Professional food service folk should know this.

So, eventually I got my food and headed back to the office. Everything was in its own little container, and (thankfully) none of it was styrofoam. (Really, I would have lost it at that point.) It makes for easy assembly but not so easy eating. I felt a divided plate might have been better, but that's a bit nit-picky. Instead, each item was in a little cardboard package. I had a plate at my desk and was soon all set.

I tried the peas first, and they were delicious. Not too cooked, they were still a little firm and popped when I bit into them. The combination of cilantro, mint, and chili works like gangbusters. The peas alone will bring me back.

The fries were nothing special but did taste and feel like they were properly handled before cooking - no telltale crumble or stale tinge of freezer burn. The dusting of chili powder dressed them up only slightly, and the side of Peri-Peri mayo was just OK. I stuck with the ketchup for the most part.

And the chicken - the chicken had a good grilled flavor. It was tender and moist and not over-cooked. While it did not have that special greasy falling-off-the-bone goodness of rotisserie chicken, it was also nothing to complain about. The sauce was not exactly hot - neither the hot sauce I ordered on it or the fierce and fiery dragon sauce I had on the side. But it was flavorful and did have a little kick. By Baltimore standards, it was pretty darn hot.

Overall, Nando's looks like a decent place for a fairly healthy lunch for under $10. They take cash and credit cards and also offer a modest selection of beer and wine for after work. For tasty chicken within walking distance from the many offices in Harbor East, they are definitely good in a pinch.