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They were lining up on West Randolph street for the last day of previews at Nando's Peri-Peri, the first Chicago location for a South Africa-based chain. Most of the people lining up when I got there at 1:30 PM on Tuesday were African-American. Was there a hitherto unknown fan base for the spicy peri peri chicken in Chicago's black community? Maybe they were folks who knew it from D.C., where it has nearly two dozen locations. But I got the likeliest answer a few minutes later from marketing director Sepanta Bagherpour, who said that during the last two days before Wednesday's official opening, they were allowing guests to pay whatever they felt it was worth and donating the proceeds to a Chicago organization called After School Matters (which Maggie Daley helped found; Mayor Emanuel mentioned it in his inauguration speech the other day). These looked like churchgoing folks who were connected in some way to that organization; that's how they got the word, I imagined.
It's a classy way to do a public warm up before your opening; even if service is a little unpracticed as yet, the good vibes will help smooth things over. (It's also, of course, politically savvy; they didn't start in D.C. for nothing.) And before I ever get to the chicken, I'm impressed with the thinking behind this chain, which started in Johannesburg in 1987 and came to the U.S. in 2008. If the original promise of chain restaurants was to ensure a uniform experience, the challenge now for nicer, midpriced chains is to reconcile the uniformity of the system producing the food with an atmosphere that's more upscale and less cookie cutter. Each Nando's will be distinct. Bagherpour points out the roughly textured floor, which was rescued from a demolished midwestern factory, and the pieces of South African art—with 8,000 works in restaurants on five continents, Bagherpour says that Nando's is now the largest public collector and exhibitor of South African art in the world.
The visible grill area demonstrates that they're trying not to be a cookie-cutter chain, too. Even some upscale-seeming chains use portion-controlled, prebagged foods, doing no more real cooking than is done on an airplane; all the "cooks" do is open the bag and arrange on the plate. But here the only controlled portion is a whole fresh chicken, also from the midwest (Ohio to be precise), which are marinated for 24 hours in the peri peri sauce and grilled to order. The restaurant is set up so you can go through the line to place an order and sit, or get table service, allowing it to serve as both a sit-down restaurant and a place to grab a quick bite.
So it's smartly run, no doubt about it. Is Chicago ready for this spicy chicken, named for the African bird's eye chile pepper and brought to South Africa by Portuguese emigres from Mozambique? Sure, why not. It's different but not too different—it may be exotically African, but at its heart it's grilled chicken, and most of what we saw that day was admirably juicy and coated in a spicy sauce I hear is a popular thing to put on the wings of chickens, in this town anyway. There are different levels of spice to the peri peri sauce—there's a bland "wild herb" sauce if you can't take any heat, but beyond that the levels are each, I'd say, about a level below what their name implies, so medium is just starting to have some kick and some "extra hot" wings are pretty perfect, hinting at danger without flaming your taste buds out.
Nando opened at regular prices today; two more will open in the next few months, one on Diversey in Lakeview and one in my favorite parking neighborhood at North and Clybourn. The last two days of previews, I was told later Wednesday, produced a donation of $18,445 to After School Matters.
This article has been amended with the final figure raised for charity.