I'm Ruby Tandoh and I'm a food writer who loves fast food. In this column, I'll review Britain's best-loved junk food chains, revelling in the joys of a 99p Chicken Mayo and giving my professional take on pressing issues like whether McDonald's or Burger King does the best shake and exactly how hot the Nando's spice scale goes.
What is it? Nando's
Why should I go there? Great chicken and chips, free refill soft drinks, endless choice.
What can it offer me spiritually, though? The menu is one of those Cosmo flowchart personality quizzes for the modern age: are you Cute-and-Cheeky Mango and Lime Churrasco Burger or are you more Scary Spice with your Extra Hot Quarter Chicken and Spicy Rice? Discover your soul.
What shouldn't I get: The fro-yo, the fro-yo, the fro-yo, the fro-yo.
The Tandohs have come to Nando's. The life drains from my dad's face when he sees the size of the menu. This is a man who can spend half an hour agonising between a bourbon and a custard cream. We are a family of rule-abiders: we take solace in being told exactly what to do and when and how. But actually, it turns out Nando's is happy to hand us that comfort on a plate. It's not just an amorphous soup of options – each decision is broken down into discrete steps: do you want the lemon and herb spice, or will you brave the extra hot? Might you want the chicken breast or the thigh? My brothers no longer look like they're going to bolt, and start making the decisions that will shape the next half hour of their lives. We're ready to order.
I make it my mission to step outside of my usual Nando's routine, and through watering eyes, fingernails sunk into the counter, I order the Mediterranean salad with halloumi. As everyone's orders flood the table, though, I'm ready to run for the exit. My salad is limp, the garlicky dressing nearly knocks me out. A friend once had a nightmare where she was eating halloumi and it squeaked so loud in her dream teeth that she woke in a cold sweat: this salad is literally the stuff of nightmares. As I dig to the bottom of the dish, where I think I might find a safe haven from the dressing and the squeaky cheese and the little cherry tomatoes that pop spitefully in my mouth, the salad deals the lowest blow of all: a single sundried tomato. Even the bottomless diet coke can't cleanse me of my sins.
Things begin to look up a little with the fillet steak and chargrilled veg pitta. I like the smokiness that balances the sweetness of the peppers, and although the meat's a bit chewy, it's fine for the price and perfect with an extra drizzle of garlicky hot sauce. Not surprisingly though, it's the chicken that really steals the show. My youngest brother tries the churrasco thigh burger, which trounces the butterfly chicken burger in tenderness, although both are thick, meaty and deliciously charred. My sister goes off-road and asks for the optional ¼ avocado in her chicken breast pitta, and nearly chokes cackling when she does get exactly that: a fat quarter of an avocado wedged clunkily among the lettuce leaves.
As for the choice of bread, there's not much in it: I've had plenty of bullet-hard baps here, but this time I'm wooed by soft, floury bread which absorbs all of the heat and flavour of the sauce inside. The pitta tends to crack and fall apart, though still it's more manageable than the unwieldy bun, which I end up surrendering to knife and fork. Sitting as I do at the intersection of cheap and greedy, I've long avoided wraps: I've got this suspicion that they're a way of giving me less food for more money, and the stingy Tandoh in me just won't stand for it. And yet the wrap ends up edging it for me: it's soft, handily divided into two halves, and still impossibly full of substance, salad and sauce. I try the portobello mushroom and halloumi one, and it's perfect. Compared to the spring onion-studded veggie burger, which tastes of sadness and armpits, this is a great vegetarian choice.
Through all of this I've tiptoed up the Nando's spice scale, from a bite of my sister's mango and lime chicken breast burger to nibbling on a pile of extra hot wings. I like the sweetness of the mango inside a pitta with chicken breast and extra salty halloumi, but smothered over a quarter chicken, it's too much. Opt for Medium and you get a kick of spice that's rich and flavourful, though at Hot you creep into runny nose territory. Surprisingly, I even step in hells blazing furnace with the Extra Hot. It reeks of machismo, but somehow I like it. Maybe it wasn't as fiery as usual, or perhaps my tastebuds are just shot, but that blast of heat perked me up. The blazing heat drowns out all other flavours, though, so perhaps best confined to a side plate of a few wings.
With the chilli still catching in my throat, I head for the fro-yo machine to start my bottomless dessert. It's my first frozen yoghurt, and I'm ready to be converted. But two spoonfuls in and I'm done: this stuff is nasty. It's so aggressively tasteless that I begin to suspect this is a deliberate ploy to minimise just the kind of frenzied All-U-Can-Eat freeloading I'd had in mind, and I'm fuming. Luckily, the situation's less bleak with the other desserts: a rich cheesecake with caramel swirls, a huge wedge of chocolate cake that's aggressively rich and fudgy, a custard tart with a sweet, light filling (though let down by a slightly chewy pastry crust).
Ultimately, Nando's is a place for routine. You could happily just order the same thing every time you come here until you die – and you can be sure that it will be the same each time, such is the joy of these chain restaurants. There's something special about a place that allows, even prioritises, that kind of safety in the familiar. And that's just what fast food is really all about: eating exactly what you want, when you want it, with no surprises. This is the food that food snobs hate. Can you hear them blustering about Nando's not even being 'authentic' Portuguese? Neither can I, I'm having to much of a nice time mixing coke and fanta at the drinks machine. So go forth and try that pineapple in your chicken burger; challenge yourself to a half chicken; get to the core of exactly who you are and what you stand for, and see if you can face the Extra Hot wings. This place will feed your soul.
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