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Nando's Peri-Peri is a spicy treat for Towson moviegoers

Towson has been a busy place this year. After years of stops and starts, the Towson Square project, including a brand new movie theater surrounded by new restaurants, is finally nearing completion.

The theater opened in July. Just a few days later, its neighbor to the left, Nando's Peri-Peri, began welcoming customers of its own.

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Peri-Peri is an African chili, co-opted by Portuguese explorers during the 15th century. At Nando's, it's slapped on everything from chicken to nuts — and it is good.

The restaurant's format is elevated fast food, which makes sense for moviegoers but sometimes interferes with the dining experience as a whole. But overall, Nando's spicy chicken has a definite leg up on popcorn and fake butter.

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Scene & Decor Decked out in warm earth tones, the Nando's space is attractive, with big, comfortable booths and bold, African-inspired artwork.

When we arrived, just before seven on a quiet Tuesday, the hostess ushered us to one of those deep booths, helpfully explaining that after we ordered and paid at the counter, someone would bring us our drinks and food.

Service The woman who took our order at the counter was efficient and helpful but, ultimately, ordering from a waiter would've been easier. Everything we wanted, it seemed, had multiple options that we forgot to consider at the table (and we are not restaurant novices).

After a few back and forth discussions, which had to annoy the cashier (though she didn't show it), we were longing for sushi restaurant-style cheat sheets.

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Fortunately, after the awkward ordering experience, the meal was smooth. Drinks and food arrived in a timely manner and a friendly manager checked on us a few times.

Drinks Nando's serves beer and wine; the selection was well-edited and thoughtful, with several Portuguese and South African options, plus a smart mix of better-known craft beers.

A glass of sangria ($5.75) was full-bodied and not too sweet. We considered the Portuguese lager Super Bock but instead opted for a more substantial Fat Tire lager ($5.50). Both wine and beer stood up to the food, which packs a punch.

The drinks did point to another negative of ordering at the counter. With a waiter, we might have ordered another round, but we weren't motivated enough to get out of our seats for a beer.

Appetizers Immediately after ordering, we dug into a small dish of Peri-Peri spiced nuts ($3.95), which were salty, a bit spicy and very likable. They functioned as an appetizer should; they whet our appetites but weren't filling.

Entrees Nando's menu is all about the chicken — in sandwiches, on salads, or just quartered and grilled. That makes sense. The bird is a good blank canvas for the Peri-Peri spice, which Nando's offers at a variety of levels of heat.

Because it's a chain restaurant, catering to a broad spectrum of palates, you might assume that, when it comes to heat, the kitchen talks big but under delivers. You would be wrong.

The medium level was honestly advertised as "hitting the spot without scalding your tonsils." The hot level — "highly combustible: proceed with caution" — had us breaking a sweat and feeling lucky that we didn't try the extra hot "ferociously fiery dragon in a furnace" variety.

We were more impressed with the kitchen's take on chicken livers ($9.25 with two sides) than with the half chicken ($14.25 with two sides). The grilled breast and thigh combo was, unfortunately, dry in spots but the livers were tender and cooked carefully.

Nando's offers a fun mix of sides, though some proved more appealing than others. We loved the well-seasoned rice and a tangy salad of cucumber and red onion. Fries were brought to life by spicy dipping mayonnaise.

But a dish of peas mashed with parsley, mint and chili was less exciting than we'd hoped.

Dessert A "naughty nata" ($2.25), Nando's take on the pasteis de Nata, a traditional Portuguese custard pastry, was petite and sweet. We also liked our less authentic dessert, a chocolate and peanut butter cupcake ($3.25), which was moist and rich.

As we ate, more customers trickled in and by the time we left, the place was about half full. It's easy to imagine a steady full house on weekend nights, with both moviegoers and people out for casual dinners, settling into those deep booths. Then gearing up to set their mouths on fire.

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