Galito’s opinion: the South African channel may be better than Nando’s
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 a chance on a grilled bird covered in a sauce from the crimson-brown end of the warp’s thermal spectrum. You could easily end up with a one-way ticket to the Thermonuclear City, no acclimatization requested and none provided.
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But you don’t eat at a piri-piri and order the grilled bird with a lemon-herb sauce. It would be like going to KFC and asking for a pie. So on my first visit to Galito, 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 large chunks of breast meat dripping with “hot” piri-piri sauce. If I was coming down with my first meal at Galito’s, I wanted to at least come down with a dish that looked like something that might scare off impressionable kids.
The chili typically used in piri-piri sauce is African bird’s eye, a potent chili pepper with a complicated history of migration, colonization, and assimilation. Operations manager David Topper, one of the partners behind Galito’s mid-Atlantic march, says he and principal owners Waqas Hassan and Nadeem Khan get all their sauces directly from the mother ship in South Africa . Basting sauces are different from the bottled stuff available on the table to drizzle over your finished chicken. “Hot” basting sauce, for example, is thinner and nastier than the salty counterpart on the table.
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But either way, Topper isn’t aware of the pepper (or, more likely, peppers in the plural) that gives Galito’s “hot” piri-piri sauce its distinctive edge. Regardless of the heat source, it’s a combustible sauce, but not one that will have you searching for the nearest milk carton, or a priest. The sauce electrifies the palate enough to satisfy your character’s thrill-seeking side – but not enough, I’d say, to appease true Chileans – without going all-out on Putin suppressing the other flavors that give the basting liquid. its personality: the dull buzz of garlic, the tropical fruitiness of lemon, the spiciness of vinegar.
Hot sauce is the way to go at Galito. It reaches its full potential with the signature flame-grilled chicken: the seasoned grill grates trademark parallel lines in your marinated bird while imparting a smoky element to the meat, which mingles with the tangy sauce for Portuguese chicken at full throat, each note strong, clear and harmonious. I was also given semi-classified information about Galito’s “extra hot” sauce, the stuff apparently reserved for people who put Tabasco on their breakfast cereal.
“A little secret is our ‘extra hot’; it is the same [hot] sauce. We just put more,” Topper tells me. “And we leave it on the grill a little longer.” In other words, if you want to double your pleasure, order your chicken extra hot. There’s nothing to be scared of.
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For those with a history in the DC area – 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 on the Washington market. In 2008, Nando’s Peri-Peri decided to test its chicken on Washingtonians with its first US location on Seventh Street NW in Chinatown. Nando’s has since spread like oil on a hot plate, with more than two dozen outlets in the area. I wonder how many people even realize the South African origins of the channel?
I mention Nando not only because Portuguese chicken might be the next bird to spread its wings in the DMV, following in the footsteps of Peruvian chicken and Korean fried chicken, but also because Galito’s founder was once a Nando franchisee. The story goes that Louis Germishuys had to sell his stores as Nando’s bought out franchises. Not ready to give up on his piri-piri dreams, Germishuys made his own sauces, apparently in his dad’s garage, but 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 that, from the start, Germishuys had either extreme confidence in his product or a death wish.
Comparing Galito’s to Nando’s is inevitable, and not just because Americans, as a rule, love to categorize things. I have always loved the interior design of Nando’s which emphasizes South African artwork and stylish light fixtures. Nando’s gives the impression of being fast and relaxed adult, if in a sort of laid-back Soho vibe that only money can provide. Galito, on the other hand, is sleek yet practical, as if every surface was designed to be easily wiped down after Junior threw his sticky lemon-herb fins on the floor.
But Galito’s, at least the one in Gaithersburg and presumably others the owners will roll out in the greater DC area, has a menu more suited to American tastes. Yes, Galito’s has a burger for trolls who insist on beef in a chicken restaurant. But the place also has items that speak more to the moment, whether it’s a forgettable attempt at a fried chicken sandwich or the more memorable trio of Tex-Mex-style tacos in which grilled chicken (drizzled with hot sauce, always hot sauce) is tucked into springy flour tortillas with lettuce, shredded cheese and a long, generous squeeze of a homemade condiment that mixes mayo with Greek yogurt.
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Galito’s also offers a more memorable dessert than Nando’s: a sticky caramel pudding, sweetened with dates and a translucent drizzle of caramel sauce. No matter how full I feel, I always have room for that sticky caramel pudding. But the dish I think about the most is the espetada, the piri-piri chicken skewer hanging from its own meat hook. The thing is both grown-up and childish: chicken nuggets for those with a sense of adventure.
Galito Flame Grilled Chicken
15918 Shady Grove Rd., Gaithersburg, Md., 301-339-8967; galitosdmv.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday to Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday.
Nearest metro: Shady Grove, with a 1.5 mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: From $1.99 to $69.99 for all menu items, including family meals.