Piri Piri Grilled Chicken: The Non-Native Dish that Became a Comfort Food Staple in Lisbon

This post is part of our Behind the Bite series: deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.

Once Portugal embarked on the Age of Discoveries from the 15th–17th centuries, local cuisine would never be the same again. 

We couldn’t think of a better example of that change than piri piri grilled chicken. Preferably grilled on charcoal, marinated the day before, juicy and with crispy skin, the sauce—secret or not—is what makes this dish the go-to comfort food for many Lisbon locals. And before we dish out on where to get the best piri piri in Lisbon, let’s look into the origins of what many may mistake for “just” barbecued chicken.

Where to find the best piri piri chicken in Lisbon, and the not-so-clear origins of this now-classic Portuguese staple.

Photo Credit: Cucurico, Text Overlay: Devour Lisbon Food Tours

Where does piri piri really come from?

Ask anyone where piri piri chicken comes from and they’ll most likely say Mozambique or Angola, two former Portuguese colonies in Africa. But that’s only half true. 

Marinating the chicken with that spicy sauce and grilling it on charcoal, cut open like a butterfly, might be Mozambican or Angolan, but the peppers used in the sauce were brought by the Portuguese from South America.

But geographical precision aside, the dish first became famous in Africa and was brought to Portugal later in the 1970s, which coincided with the period of decolonization and the return of many Portuguese to their homeland. You may also have heard of a particular popular South African chain called Nando’s, founded by a Portuguese, with hundreds of restaurants in mainly English-speaking countries.

In a true chicken-and-egg conundrum, some people state that the South Africa-based Portuguese businessman was the precursor of the famous dish, which then expanded to other African countries and later to Portugal. However, most are firm believers that it all started in Angola and Mozambique.

South Africa-based restaurant Nando's, which helped popularize piri piri chicken.
Outside of Portugal, many people may have first tried piri piri chicken at Nando’s. The South Africa-based chain has popularized the dish worldwide. Photo credit: Mr.TinDC

Takeout or eat in: is there a piri piri chicken eating etiquette?

While there are plenty of grilled chicken takeout places in Lisbon, you won’t feel like less of a local if you choose to eat it at a restaurant instead. The versatility of this comfort food is that it can be a last-minute dinner decision on your way home after a frantic day at work, a craving for childhood family lunches at a neighborhood restaurant, or a foolproof way to get under your destination’s (crispy) skin.

The only right way to consume piri piri chicken is eating it with your hands, in the comfort of your own home or at a restaurant, completely uninhibited. Unless you’re a master with a fork and a knife, chances are if you choose cutlery over your fingers, you won’t get to all the juicy meat. And the end goal here is to leave nothing on the plate but (almost) bare bones.

How to spot the best piri piri chicken in Lisbon

We’ll get to some of our favorite places to eat piri piri in Lisbon, but first here’s what you need to know about what makes the perfect chicken.

  • Size matters—a perfectly sized frango shouldn’t be much bigger than both of your hands side by side. Yes, you can imagine you’re cuddling a chicken on your palms for reference. And don’t be misled by its appearance: most of the times one piece of chicken is enough for two.
  • When it comes to sauce options, less is more—no need to overthink it. All you need to decide is if you want the spicy sauce (made with piri piri, of course) or the regular house sauce (usually secret, but often a fragrant lemony and garlicky creation or some version of it). Some takeout places will give you the sauce on the side while others will brush it right onto your freshly grilled chicken.
  • Charcoal, charcoal, charcoal—if you spot a place where the grill is electric, move on. You want that delicate mix of crispy skin and juicy meat that only charcoal grilling can give you.  
Piri piri chicken in Lisbon
Perfectly grilled piri piri. Photo credit: Edsel Little

Where to find the best piri piri chicken in Lisbon

Churrasqueira Rio de Mel

This is probably one of the most common travel tips you’ve heard: when in doubt, choose the restaurant with the longest line of locals. And that’s the case with Churrasqueira Rio de Mel (Avenida da Igreja, 25D) in the Alvalade neighborhood.

On a street chock full of family-owned churrasqueiras, it’s hard to not give in to your grumbling stomach and choose the first one you find. We suggest you skip browsing and go straight to the source of the best, juiciest, tastiest, crispiest takeout grilled chicken in town. 

Cucurico

Everything in this restaurant at LX Factory is Instagrammable, including the chicken. It’s not the secret sauce (there isn’t one) that appeals to customers at this hipster- and family-friendly restaurant. It’s the possibility to only order the pieces of chicken you love.

Can’t decide between breasts, drumsticks, or thighs? Don’t worry, Cucurico also serves freshly grilled half-chickens. 

Some of the best piri piri in Lisbon at Cucurico.
Cucurico isn’t just home to great piri piri—it’s also just a fun place to get together with family and friends. Photo credit: Cucurico

A Valenciana

Close to a hidden gem that only locals know about, A Valenciana is a mix of a neighborhood restaurant and takeout chicken joint across the street from the tram 24E stop. It’s worth taking the trip from Chiado to Campolide for a plate of half a grilled chicken, rice, and French fries.

The piri piri sauce is served on the side and trust the servers when they assure you “it’s not too spicy.” It’s safe to pour a generous portion of the sauce on the chicken pieces.

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