In 2009, budding restaurateur Thomas Nguyen teamed up with chef Paul Friedman to create Peli Peli, Houston’s only restaurant dedicated to South African cuisine. Thanks to its quirky fare and upscale vibe, Peli Peli quickly became a hit. A second location at the Galleria opened in 2014, and it was quickly followed by the arrival of Peli Peli Kitchen, the restaurant’s fast-casual spinoff, in 2016.
With Peli Peli Kitchen, Nguyen and his team had scored a second hit. The quick-serve spot, which won Eater Houston’s 2017 award for fast-casual restaurant of the year, has already spawned a second location that is set to open inside Houston’s first Whole Foods 365 in Independence Heights in August. “Our goal is to start franchising in 2019,” Nguyen says. “We will spend the rest of the year streamlining our concept and finalizing a menu that is scalable and efficient.”
It’s an idea that was built into Peli Peli Kitchen’s DNA from the beginning — to serve dishes that can be prepared quickly or in advance without losing quality — but still requires constant refinement. “We are still trying to figure out which high-quality dishes to serve in this counter-service format that don’t take too long to prep,” Nguyen says. “We have to get our guests in and out very quickly, which limits the types of foods we can offer.”
But, because South African cuisine is a melting pot of flavors from Holland, India, Portugal, and England, there’s plenty of room to play with spices and marinades to keep the dishes fresh without making them too complicated to prepare at Peli Peli Kitchen. Nguyen cites the restaurant’s burger as a prime example — at first glance, it looks like a typical burger, but the patty is actually frikadelle, or a South African meatball. “Prep time for the frikadelle is minimal, so it’s a perfect item for a counter-service concept,” he says. “All patties are cooked one temperature but are still juicy and flavorful because it’s essentially a meatball.”
That diversity of flavors and the pricey ingredients that are required to create them, though, did pose a problem, and so did the idea of introducing an unfamiliar cuisine to a mass audience. “We did find difficulty in trying to create a menu that offered similar taste profiles as Peli Peli but with a much lower price point,” Nguyen says. “But our goal has always been to reach the masses with our South African dishes, and we knew an affordable fast-casual restaurant could reach many more people.” To that end, Peli Peli Kitchen put their own spin on familiar American dishes, like a crispy, juicy fried chicken sandwich coated in piri piri spices from South Africa. It was, not surprisingly, a hit.
Now comes an even bigger challenge — being able to replicate those dishes across many more locations than just two. In order to do that, Nguyen enlisted the help of Ryan Stewart, a Johannesburg restaurateur known for his peri peri chicken, arguable South Africa’s most iconic dish. Stewart is currently at work revamping the Peli Peli Kitchen menu to include more of a focus on peri peri chicken. It’s a model that has been wildly successful for restaurants like South African chain Nando’s Peri-Peri, which operates restaurants in more than a dozen countries across the globe.
Once Peli Peli Kitchen debuts its Independence Heights location, where they’re headed next is anyone’s guess. They’re potentially looking outside Texas for new locations, and will start franchising sometime next year. Wherever they go, though, Peli Peli Kitchen will always be carrying the flag of South Africa. “Our goal with Peli Peli Kitchen is to create a concept that celebrates diversity and the flavors you get when you blend many different cultures together through comfort foods,” Nguyen says. “What makes South Africa interesting is all of the cultures that it is made up of.”
This is the fourth in a series of features highlighting Houston’s 2017 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned for the next installment.