Battle peri peri has been fully engaged since the end of May, when the mega chicken chain Nando’s opened its first Chicago location on Randolph. The second outpost opened in Lakeview last month, and so it seemed the time was nigh to evaluate the South African chicken empire vs. the scrappy hometown little guy, Logan Square’s esteemed Macanese restaurant, Fat Rice, which for a few months now has been offering two varieties of peri-peri chicken to go at lunchtime.
Peri peri (also called “piri piri”), if you’ve yet to be enslaved to its deliciousness, is the famed Portuguese-style chicken bathed in a spicy, lemony, bird’s eye (aka peri-peri) chile marinade, then grilled and dressed with a similar sauce. Based on the throngs crowding into the Lakeview Nando’s, it’s clear that its powers are not to be dismissed. The large space bedecked with contemporary South African art swarms with people lining up to the counter to place their order under a wall of Nando’s proprietary sauces. Music is blaring, there’s a logjam at the drink machine, and if you’re hungry and of a delicate constitution, you might just sense a case of the vapors coming on. It doesn’t help that Nando’s has a large and varied menu, full of nonsense like mushroom wraps, steak sandwiches, veggie burgers, frozen yogurt, and raspberry cheesecake. Never mind all that. The only appropriate order is the chicken, which can be ordered at a variety of spice levels. Individual pieces are available in various combinations, but family-style platters, which feature one or two whole chickens and two large sides ($26.45 and $51.45, respectively) are a good way to go.
The pieces are scored and grilled—just kissed, really—before being lightly sauced (nothing like the drenching that goes down at Fogo’s in Skokie). There’s really nothing extraordinary about the chicken, but the sauces themselves are pretty wonderful, and you can douse your plate with them to your heart’s content at the sauce station, where individual bottles of wild herb, lemon and herb, mango-lime, garlic, mild, medium, hot, extra hot, and extra extra hot are stocked. These are all thick and emulsified, based on lemon and vinegar, and even the spiciest, while respectably hot, isn’t so volatile it’ll kill you. This is the key to Nando’s world dominance: the smallish, hastily grilled chicken itself is nothing special, but the sauces are. While they all share a similar bright acidic base, they also bear a well-rounded, almost fatty texture that’s really difficult to resist. I had trouble deciding which I liked best on an ample bowl of grilled chicken livers ($7.25), and I can at least imagine they’d make the Nando’s veggie burger somewhat edible.
Fat Rice, which still offers its tomato-and-coconut Macanese-style peri peri, is in a completely different league altogether with its Fatracha peri peri (available during lunch Wednesday through Saturday). First, they’re dealing with brawnier bird of plainly better quality. A half chicken is marinated before getting a seriously smoky char on the grill, taken just up to point of no return. Chopped across the body Chinese style, it’s drenched in Fat Rice’s take on real Thai sriracha sauce (nothing like Rooster brand), made with cane vinegar, lemon juice, peri-peri chiles, cane sugar, garlic, and salt. It shares the same fundamental flavor profile as Nando’s, but with a much lighter body and long, slow-developing heat. Garnished with a few grilled green onions and chile-coated lemon, Fat Rice’s peri peri is practically a steal at $16, compared to Nando’s.