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Nando’s Peri-Peri: Cluck, Cluck

It may be fast food of a sort, but it sure isn’t chicken feed. Though chicken takes center stage at Nando’s Peri-Peri, it shares the spotlight with some unexpected extras, from a toothsome veggie burger to a spectacular mound of fresh, hot fries. Besides all this, you’ll find some sartorial splendor: female staff wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Chicks Rule.” The guys? Well, their shirts describe the various degrees of chili hot in the Peri-Peri sauces, and the extra hot is just that, a tongue scorcher.

Chicken and chilies make cozy companions in this new-to-the-US eatery, an import that’s got much of Europe, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere on the globe under its thrall. And now, chicken eaters of America, unite. The Penn Quarter/Chinatown location is a first for the U.S. (a second is soon to open in Dupont Circle, rumor has it) but it’s a safe bet that the Nando’s Peri-Peri brand will make a triumphant march across the US in the near future, taking on such formidable fast-food eateries as Mickey D’s, BK, Wendy’s and the ubiquitous Popeye’s — and winning hands down.

Why, you may ask. Sure, chicken served mild to scorch-the-tongue hot takes center stage. But more to the point, Nando’s serves up some outrageously delicious others from a roasted Portobello mushroom, an order of chicken livers, a scoop of butternut squash and grilled corn tossed with diced red onions, to a chunky Portuguese salad with feta, peppers, cucumbers, and olives. To whet appetites, why not start with a scoop of fiery mixed nuts (almonds, cashews, and macadamias), already spiked with a shot of one of their hot sauces. And to soothe and indulge the inner sweet tooth, pick up one of their tartlets — flaky pastry holding a custard filling — stacked neatly on the countertop or order up some frozen yogurt.

Featuring the African Peri-Peri chili as both a condiment and a chicken marinade, Nando’s manages to deliver a menu filled with offbeat dishes while keeping an eye on such consumer concerns as fat and calorie control. Add to this, Nando’s chickens are fresh, never frozen, and to attain the desired crispiness, are flame-grilled rather than deep-fried. For an extra measure of fat control, customers can order their chicken skinless, thus eliminating several more unwanted calories.

Nando’s also has a back story, as all such good institutions do. In its short form (read it all on their funky website, www.nandos.com), the idea for Nando’s hatched when two friends discovered the delicious chickens cooked up Portuguese-style in a restaurant outside of Johannesburg. Using a particular breed of bird — the Barcelos Cockerel — the restaurant produced a particularly succulent chicken dish, and the friends turned this idea into an almost worldwide chicken phenomenon. To underscore the succulence of their birds, Nando’s staff selects the plumpest cockerels, trims off all excess fat, and marinates the birds for 24 hours before the birds hit the grills.

Putting the birds aside, management has scored points for offering up food that transcends the “greasy spoon” image. Not only is your order ready in a few moments (you can eat in the sunny, mood-enhancing space, albeit a bit frenzied at noontimes, or take out to enjoy your catch elsewhere), but the savvy will pile on with all the “others” from the menu. Of special note is the butternut squash, tender and tenderly tossed with corn kernels, dried cranberries, and freshly snipped cilantro — good enough to warrant two orders which would convert into a stand-alone entrée. Yum.

All in all, Nando’s is a more-than-welcome addition to America’s fast-food obsession: it takes consumers back to where food ought to be — fresh, flavor-packed, and healthful. Besides, it’s just plain finger-lickin’ good.

Nando’s Peri-Peri / 819 7th St., NW; tel., (202) 898-1225. Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11:30am-10pm.; Fri. & Sat., to 11pm. Credit cards accepted. Price range: for half chicken, $8.95 with one regular side to $10.45 for 2 regular sides or one “fino” side.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.