If you work outdoors at this time of year and actually have a boss who cares about your well-being, you were probably eased into the job, a process known as acclimatization. It gives your body a chance to adjust to the infernal conditions outside so you won’t, you know, turn into a warm puddle of water within an hour. Unfortunately, there’s no such equivalent for Portuguese chicken, perhaps more commonly known as piri-piri (or peri-peri) chicken around these parts.
When you’re introduced to a newcomer to the market — as I was with Galito’s, a South African import that opened its first U.S. location in Gaithersburg in April — you take your chances when opting for a grilled bird slathered with a sauce from the crimson-maroon end of the chain’s heat spectrum. You could easily end up with a one-way ticket to Thermonuclear Town, no acclimatization requested and none provided.
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But you don’t eat at a piri-piri joint and order the bird grilled with a lemon-and-herb sauce. It’d be like going to KFC and asking for a pot pie. So on my first visit to Galito’s, I headed straight for the red zone. I ordered an espetada — basically a metal skewer that hangs from a hook, like a garden tool in the shed — spiked with fat chunks of breast meat dripping with “hot” piri-piri sauce. If I was going down with my first meal at Galito’s, I wanted to at least go down with a dish that looks like something that could put a scare on impressionable children.
The chile typically used in piri-piri sauce is the African bird’s eye, a potent pepper with a complicated history of migration, colonization and assimilation. Operations manager David Topper, one of the partners behind the march of Galito’s into the Mid-Atlantic, says he and principal owners Waqas Hassan and Nadeem Khan get all their sauces straight from the mother ship in South Africa. The basting sauces are different from the bottled stuff available on the table to drizzle atop your finished chicken. The “hot” basting sauce, for instance, is thinner and meaner than the salty counterpart on the table.
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But either way, Topper is not privy to the pepper (or, more likely, peppers plural) that gives Galito’s “hot” piri-piri sauce its distinctive edge. Whatever the heat source, it’s a combustible sauce, but not the kind that will make you search for the nearest carton of milk, or a priest. The sauce electrifies the palate enough to satisfy the thrill-seeking side of your persona — though not enough, I’d venture, to appease true chile-heads — without going full-on Putin by repressing the other flavors that give the basting liquid its personality: the low hum of garlic, the tropical fruitiness of lemon, the sharp poke of vinegar.
The hot sauce is the way to go at Galito’s. It reaches its full potential with the signature flame-grilled chicken: The seasoned grill grates brand parallel lines into your marinated bird while imparting an element of smoke to the meat, all of which intermingles with the hot sauce for full-throated Portuguese chicken, every note loud, clear and harmonious. I was also given some semi-classified information about Galito’s “extra hot” sauce, the stuff seemingly reserved for folks who put Tabasco on their breakfast cereal.
“A little secret is our ‘extra hot’; it’s the same [hot] sauce. We just put more on,” Topper tells me. “And we leave it a little bit longer on the grill.” In other words, if you want to double your pleasure, order your chicken extra hot. There’s nothing to fear.
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For those with history in the D.C. region — by which I mean those who have lived here at least 15 years — you know that Galito’s is not the first South African piri-piri chain to test its menu in the Washington market. Back in 2008, Nando’s Peri-Peri decided to guinea-pig its chicken on Washingtonians with its first U.S. location on Seventh Street NW in Chinatown. Nando’s has since spread like oil on a hot flattop, with more than two dozen outlets in the area. I wonder how many people even realize the chain’s South African origins?
I mention Nando’s not just because Portuguese chicken may be the next bird to spread its wings in the DMV, following in the tracks of Peruvian chicken and Korean fried chicken, but also because the founder of Galito’s used to be a Nando’s franchisee. As the story goes, Louis Germishuys had to sell his stores when Nando’s was buying back franchise locations. Not ready to surrender his piri-piri dreams, Germishuys workshopped his own sauces, apparently in his father’s garage, though you have to wonder where the truth ends and the legend begins here. The first Galito’s opened in Mbombela, South Africa, supposedly next to a Nando’s, which means, from the outset, Germishuys had either extreme confidence in his product or a death wish.
It’s inevitable to compare Galito’s with Nando’s, and not just because Americans, as a general rule, love to rank things. I’ve always loved the interior design at Nando’s, with its emphasis on southern African artwork and stylish fixtures. Nando’s makes fast-casual feel so adult, if in a sort of relaxed Soho vibe that only money can provide. Galito’s, by contrast, is sleek but practical, as if every surface is designed for an easy wipe down after Junior throws his sticky lemon-and-herb winglets to the floor.
But Galito’s, at least the one in Gaithersburg and presumably others that the owners will roll out in the greater D.C. region, has a menu more attuned to American tastes. Yes, Galito’s has a burger for those trolls who insist on beef at a chicken joint. But the place also has items that speak more to the moment, whether a mostly forgettable attempt at a fried chicken sandwich or the more memorable trio of Tex-Mex-style tacos in which grilled chicken (basted with hot sauce, always the hot sauce) is tucked into elastic flour tortillas with lettuce, shredded cheese and a long, generous squeeze of a housemade condiment that mixes mayo with Greek yogurt.
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Galito’s also has a more memorable dessert than Nando’s: a sticky toffee pudding, sweetened with dates and a translucent drizzle of caramel sauce. No matter how full I find myself, I always have space for that sticky toffee pudding. But the dish I think about most is the espetada, the skewer of piri-piri chicken dangling from its own meat hook. The thing is both adult and childlike: chicken nuggets for those with a sense of adventure.
Galito’s Flame-Grilled Chicken
15918 Shady Grove Rd., Gaithersburg, Md., 301-339-8967; galitosdmv.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Shady Grove, with a 1.5-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.99 to $69.99 for all items on the menu, including family meals.