In spite of the myth about Marco Polo sending noods to Europe, the globalization of food really began with the Portuguese empire. The malasadas that make Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu such a must-stop can be attributed to the sea voyages of a small country on the western tip of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula — as can the fact that most of the West instinctively equates Indian food with heat. (Vindaloo and other spicy dishes come from the region around Goa, Portugal’s longtime colony on the Indian subcontinent.)
By way of stops in the Caribbean en route from Brazil, and Portuguese colonies in Africa like Mozambique, piri-piri sauce became a culinary powerhouse. A mix of dried chilis, lemon, oil, and various spices, its name is Swahili for “pepper pepper,” uttered twice for emphasis like halo halo, wikiwiki, or Walla Walla. And it’s the basis for Pira Pica, the fast-casual stepchild of Telmo Faria’s Uma Casa, a full-service Noe Valley restaurant with some truly excellent salt cod.
Piri Pica is also a return to Valencia Street for the chef, a native of the Azores who was an opening partner at Tacolicious before striking out on his own. (Disclosure: Faria and I judged seafood on the same panel at the 2017 Abalone Cook-Off in Mendocino.) As fast-casual, its opening menu is slim and organized around a chicken-and-two-sides concept, but it feels fully formed right out of the gate, like Athena out of Zeus’ forehead.
In short, this place is dedicated to the virtues of the bird, whether quartered ($8), halved ($14), or whole ($26), with accompanying sauces based on amount of capsicum. “Pica pica,” sounds like something Little Caesar might intone, so it’s a good thing there’s a third “pica” in the hottest sauce’s name. It’s technically “Pica! Pica! Pica!” but if those exclamation marks give you pause, go one notch down to the middle-tier piri-piri. Neither is all that spicy, being full of a smoky heat that doesn’t overwhelm the palate with Scoville units. But definitely don’t be a “basic bird,” the poultry slathered in mild sauce. (The lemon-and-herb chicken, which doesn’t map onto the same spiciness index, is more than decent, however.)
While grilled chicken is always nice on its own, Piri Pica’s wrap sneaks it into a stealth burrito. Why call such a thing a wrap, you wonder? Is it because the Mission is already saturated with burrito joints, with even El Toro Taqueria next door, and Faria wants to stake out a distinct Portuguese identity? Or is it because a wrap sounds healthier and less prone to send you into a food coma? Whatever the impetus, it’s very strong, a heterogeneous mix of saffron rice, three-bean chili, and a snappy cabbage-herb slaw that begs for more hot sauce with every bite. Ordering one with two sides is probably too much for nearly everyone. But if you want something legitimately nutritious, an entree-sized, vegetable-filled couscous salad with chicken is ($12.95)
And regarding those $3.95 sides, they’re admirably varied and plentiful, from a small portion of couscous salad to the buttery grilled corn that’s as yellow as Big Bird or the tiles in Piri Pica’s restroom. A hummus with supplementary grilled bread is worth it for the textural contrasts. Fries are fries, although rumor has it there’s a forthcoming sandwich made with fries inside it, Pittsburgh-style, which is always welcome. (Wings, exported from Uma Casa, are in the works, too.) Probably the only side dish to avoid are the braised greens, which were mild on one visit and unpleasantly bitter on another.
In the beer category, everything is quite light, like the Calicraft Coast Kolsch to a good old Modelo Especial. Wine is a little more thrilling, particularly the Cocapatha Arinto ($8), a Portuguese white whose forceful acidity stands out even against the spicier sauces. But during a sober lunchtime visit, a can of pomegranate Sumol soda over ice has exactly the right fluorescent-flavored artifice. Sometimes you can have one Jarritos too many. And rather than a sea of two-tops that look like they’ll be colonized by Laptop-Americans, Piri Pica subdivides the floor into clusters ringed with couches. Squint and it almost looks like a V.I.P. section.
Piri Pica, 590 Valencia St., 415-800-7994 or piripica.com