Houston Restaurant Aims to Please With Long-Awaited South African Dish
Peli Peli Kitchen opened at 9090 Katy Freeway in the fall of 2016 as a casual, economically priced spinoff of the original Peli Peli restaurant in Vintage Park — and sported a very different menu. Peli Peli has some decidedly South African dishes but Peli Peli Kitchen (PPK for short) embraced elements from many different cuisines. (One good example is tacos made with Indian naan bread.) In October, though, the company was on a quest to perfect peri peri sauce — the key element for one of South Africa’s most famous dishes, peri peri chicken. So, it retained native South African Ryan Stewart as the new culinary director and executive chef — and he’s been steering the restaurant back to its South African roots while still keeping it casual and affordable.
Stewart (whose nickname is “Chef Rhyno”) is from Johannesburg and one of the founders of Mo-zam-bik, a Portuguese-influenced restaurant chain in South Africa. (South African cuisine is the product of many other cultural influences.) He opened the first six locations with a business partner before expanding it to a franchise operation. According to Stewart, it’s now up to 15 locations.
One of the dishes that Mo-zam-bik — and Stewart — are known for is peri peri chicken — a hallmark South African dish that neither Peli Peli nor Peli Peli Kitchen previously offered (although there’s always been liberal use of peri peri spices). “Sauces are my specialty and in South Africa, I’m known for my chicken,” said Stewart. In that country, chicken dishes — including peri peri chicken — are a big deal (kind of like steak is to Texas).
Peri peri (sometimes also styled as piri piri, a Swahili word meaning pepper-pepper), is a chili pepper that is native to South Africa. The Portuguese are most often credited for “discovering” it since sailors distributed the seeds on their travels — but it’s a fair bet that the indigenous population used it long before that.
Peri peris are often used to bring some heat to chicken and seafood. The capsaicin levels in the peppers vary wildly depending on where and how these are grown. Cultivated peppers can be as mild as chile de arbol while those that grow in the wild approach the heat levels of habaneros. While it takes a deft hand in the kitchen to stay on top of the varying heat levels, the variance in the peppers lends itself well to creating a range of sauces from mild to hot.
In the United States, the most famous purveyor of peri peri chicken is Nando’s but so far, it’s only expanded to three states in the north and northeast. “Nando’s has nothing on us. I like telling people that,” said Stewart with a laugh.
At Peli Peli Kitchen, diners can order a quarter-chicken, chicken thigh or Cornish hen with one of four peri peri sauces ranging from very mild to hot. In order of spiciness, those are lemon-herb, BBQ peri peri, regular peri peri and “The Blitz.”
With these sauces now in the repertoire, that leaves an opening for Peli Peli Kitchen to spread peri peri chicken far and wide across Houston — and perhaps even farther than that. Right now, there are only two locations: the original and at the Whole Foods in Independence Heights. (It opened as a Whole Foods 365 but the company has dropped that idea on a national level.) Thomas Nguyen, co-founder of Peli Peli Kitchen (and the original Peli Peli) and Stewart say they already have their eyes on expansion — and peri peri chicken is the dish primed to be the centerpiece of all current and future locations.
There’s another new addition to the menu that Nguyen and Stewart are both quite proud of: the Jo-Burger, a uniquely South African spin on the classic. The patty is actually a flattened frikadelle (South African-style meatball). While Stewart is keeping his unique recipe a secret, a typical frikadelle is a mix of ground beef, egg, herbs, spices and breadcrumbs. The Jo-Burger comes on a brioche bun with fried onions, cilantro, peppadew (a mild and South African pepper that’s akin to a cherry pepper but sweeter), BBQ peri peri sauce and “peri-naise.”
Stewart has also added a unique touch to Peli Peli Kitchen’s cucumber salad: cashew-stuffed olives. While Asia is by far the biggest exporter of cashews, it’s an important crop for parts of Africa as well. The salad is also comprised of romaine lettuce, tomato, red onions and feta and diners can add chicken, tofu, beef or shrimp.
Stewart says that Peli Peli Kitchen’s customers are responding positively to the new dishes. “We’ve had great feedback. The plates are empty now whereas before there was still food on the plate. Of course, we have some regular customers who liked our pork belly and cauliflower, but unfortunately, it wasn’t holding well on the line. But we’ve had quite a good response — especially in our sales. Additionally, Stewart says there’s been an increase in South African customers.
(Editor’s note: “Holding well on the line” means how much integrity dishes retains when prepared in batches and then having to sit under or over a heat source for a while. A buffet steam table is a common scenario.)
In addition to the peri peri chicken and the burger, Stewart says that new and returning customers should try the chicken sandwiches. Yes, another chicken dish.
In fact, Peli Peli Kitchen’s new stance positions it as a chicken-lovers’ paradise. Diners who eschew red meat or simply adore roasted chicken need to put this restaurant on their must-try list.
Disclosure: for purposes of this article, the author tried some of the dishes noted as a guest of the restaurant.
Update, 3/13/19, 1:40 p.m.: Article updated to reflect the likelihood that peri peris were probably used in cooking by indigenous Africans before the Portuguese made it famous.