It’s lunchtime at O Teodósio in Guia, in Portugal’s Algarve. The huge white-tiled restaurant is packed with families, there’s football on the television and children are pressing their noses against a huge glass dessert cabinet. Waiters run back and forth with silver platters of chicken, and there’s even an English hen party sharing dishes on a long table.
For Marco Mendes, the half-Portuguese co-founder of London’s Casa do Frango restaurant, this is a nostalgic sight. “I used to come here for chicken when I was three or four years old,” he reminisces. “You never get a bad meal, it’s been cooked the same way for almost 30 years. People tend to overlook or underestimate chicken, but it can be an amazing dish.”
At O Teodósio the bird is brushed with piri piri and charcoal grilled, giving it a salty, spicy flavour. The dish may be a favourite in the Algarve, but its origins are international. The flavour comes from the malagueta pepper, which has its roots in south America and Africa. In Swahili its name is piri piri, meaning ‘pepper pepper’, prompting the saying ‘so hot they named it twice’.
The early 1970s saw many Portuguese migrate home from the country’s colonies in Africa, bringing the malagueta with them, where it was able to grow year-round in the sunny microclimate of the Algarve. The first piri piri chicken dish was supposedly grilled in the Ramires restaurant in Guia, and other sites such as O Teodósio followed in the early-1980s. At the latter the bird is served simply cut up on a silver platter alongside plates of chips or tomatoes sprinkled with oregano.
“It’s such an affordable and convivial type of eating that it’s a big part of culture in the Algarve,” explains Mendes. “Families go out for it. When your chicken is costing you eight euros, it makes sense.”
The no-frills approach is part of the inspiration behind Casa do Frango, which Mendes co-founded in London Bridge with his business partner Jake Kasumov in 2018. The pair met while working in the City of London and founded the MJMK hospitality company, which was involved in the opening of the Pop Brixton restaurant and retail development in 2015.
Mendes says the pair are both “obsessed” with chicken and hatched the idea of opening the project after visiting Mendes’ childhood restaurants in the Algarve.
“We thought London made a lot of sense for Casa,” he explains. “The Anglo-Portuguese relationship is one of the strongest in the world. English tourism has been important in building the Algarve, some would say not in the best way, but I think it’s been positive and has allowed a lot of restaurants to flourish.
“There’s also something quite English about chicken and chips. There’s a nostalgia that comes with it. If you’ve been down to southern Spain or Portugal on holiday, you’ve had those chips.”
Despite these ties, Portuguese cuisine has historically been under-represented in the UK restaurant scene compared with some of its European neighbours. In London there are longstanding sites such as Grelha D’Ouro in Stockwell, and more recent openings such as Bar Duoro in London Bridge (soon to open a second site) and pasteis de nata (custard tarts) purveyor Santa Nata, which has two sites in the capital. Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes also caught the attention of foodies with his Taberna do Mercado restaurant in Spitalfields, though it has since closed.
But why has the country’s wider cuisine not made more of a popular impact? “There has always been such wonderful food and wine in Portugal but people tend not to shout about what they’re doing in the same way as perhaps the Italians, French or those from the Basque country,” says Mendes.
“That’s just my interpretation, and I’m not a chef. But the narrative of Portuguese food has been getting out there more with chefs like Jose Avillez and Nuno [Mendes]. There are so many talented people working in restaurants in London and other cities, so I think we’ll see more Portuguese-started concepts in future. It’s almost having that renaissance now.”
Piri piri chicken, though, is a different story. The dish has a firm place in the national consciousness thanks to a certain ‘cheeky’ chain. Nando’s, the South African group founded in Johannesburg in 1987, has brought its take on the dish to the mass market. After opening its first UK restaurant in London in 1992, it now operates more than 300 sites nationwide and has been called ‘one of the most successful cults in Britain’.
So was it wise for MJMK to launch a piri piri chicken restaurant in the face of such high street competition? “Nando’s really casts a long shadow,” admits Mendes. “For me it’s not Portuguese, but it has a lot of influence in the market. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I saw that as an opportunity to tell the story the right way.”
It was against this backdrop that Mendes and Kasumov opened the first Casa do Frango restaurant in London Bridge in July 2018. The rustic-chic site occupies the upper floor of a Victorian building by Southwark’s railway arches, with an open kitchen, huge windows and rows of skylights flooding the space with light.
Mendes admits the pair were “extremely nervous” about how the restaurant would be received and had not tested the menu on anyone outside their team when it opened.
Though several dishes have evolved and changed seasonally over the past 18 months, the core menu has remained the same since launch. The main event is the £10 half chicken, butterflied and grilled over wood charcoal and then brushed with either piri piri, lemon and garlic, or oregano. In contrast, Nando’s marinates and gas grills its chickens, selling half a bird at £7.60.
Mendes says sourcing the poultry has been one of the more complicated elements of the menu. Due to the size of the chickens required – 900g–1kg – Casa do Frango sources from several different UK farms. This smaller size means the bird can grill evenly, from raw to cooked in around 20 minutes.
Beyond chicken, Casa do Frango’s menu includes Algarvian-inspired dishes such as grilled chorizo with black olive mayo and vinegary guindilla peppers; African rice with chorizo, plantain and shards of crispy chicken skin; and sweet potato feijoda (a Brazilian bean stew) with artichoke, mushroom, white beans and oregano. There’s also the restaurant’s take on the pasteis de nata, in cinnamon, raspberry or ‘original’ options.
Mendes says the menu has passed the ‘chicken test’ with Portuguese expats, and a glowing review from Jay Rayner in The Observer, who praised the ‘delightful’ restaurant, helped them imagine Casa do Frango had the potential to become something bigger.
“That was when we realised that this was something that a lot more people than we thought might actually enjoy,” says Mendes. “We had quite modest expectations starting out.”
He seems almost surprised at how quickly the restaurant has taken off. Since launching in 2018, Casa do Frango has opened a unit at London food hall Arcade Food Theatre, serving its core menu of charcoal-grilled chicken and select sides, and last month it opened a second full-service site in Shoreditch.
“We never imagined in our wildest dreams that it would be something we’d get to expand,” says Mendes. “We thought we’d have one restaurant and that would be it.”
A clutch of openings
Back in chilly London, and suddenly feeling very far from the sunny Algarve, Mendes is giving a tour of the new Casa do Frango restaurant in Shoreditch. At the time of writing, the builders are still in and entry is conditional on donning a high-vis vest. It’s a fair bit larger than the original site and is split over two levels, with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The ground floor channels Algarvian café culture, with a menu of pesticos (tapas-sized plates) for lunch and dinner. An open-plan pasteleria (bakery) is the focus of the room and the restaurant produces its own varieties of pasteis de nata and other desserts and pastries, including salami cake – where chocolate and biscuits are rolled together to give a marbled appearance. “London got obsessed with custard tarts…but there’s so much more to Portuguese pastry,” says Mendes.
Upstairs the menu still majors on charcoal-grilled chicken, again cooked in an open kitchen, and several popular dishes from London Bridge have made the jump to the new site. The team is using the larger space as an opportunity to serve a wider range of Portuguese dishes including prawn rice; beef cheek stew; and acorn-fed black pork from the Alentejo.
The drinks menu offers an exclusively Portuguese wine list, including some sourced from the Algarve, and cocktails using spirits such as fig liqueur.
Mendes was keen to serve an Algarvian craft beer and, after several meetings with enthusiasts brewing as a hobby in their garages, discovered the Algarve Rock Brewery. Located a short drive from Faro, the team has collaborated on three beers made using piri piri chilli peppers. The cerveja da casa (a smooth pilsner) and spice-infused piri piri cerveja da casa are both available on draught. Fogo, which means ‘fire’ in Portuguese, is an extra spicy lager available by the bottle that pairs surprisingly well with the food.
The team is also working with Quinta do Piri Piri, a chilli farm around 30 minutes’ drive from Guia, to produce its own pepper that will be used exclusively in Casa do Frango. “That’s a way down the road, but we’d like to have a hybrid between a malagueta and another chilli that would create a flavour that would be unique to all our restaurants.”
Beyond Shoreditch, Mendes does not rule out opening further Casa do Frango restaurants (there are whispers that a site in Covent Garden is being looked at), but isn't planning to attempt a Nando’s-style rollout.
“We would love to open more Casas, but they would have to be true to Algarvian style – approachable, accessible and affordable. We want them to be neighbourhood restaurants. The idea would be to open in central or west London eventually.”
There are further plans for the wider MJMK business. The group co-founded London Bridge’s Vinegar Yard outdoor street food hub in 2019 as a joint venture with the landlord and is also backing the opening of ex-Noma Mexico chef Santiago Lastra’s debut London restaurant Kol, which is set to launch in spring 2020. There is also talk of a Thai restaurant project, but details are being held under wraps.
“We have some other interesting stuff that is conceptualised, but the focus is on Casa for now,” says Mendes. “We want to continue spreading the story of Algarvian cuisine.”
This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector, subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.