Someday, when cancel culture gets around to poultry, I hope its first target will be people who stubbornly insist that chicken has run out of ways to delight us. Such a view is wrongheaded and grossly unfair to the bird, whose capacity for culinary reinvention ought never be underestimated. The same might be said of the Island’s dining scene, which continues to serve up new and exciting fare, notwithstanding present obvious challenges.
Which brings us to Hafeez Raja and his lifelong love of peri-peri chicken, a dish that, while not exactly a new thing, might be unfamiliar to many. If so, an exciting discovery awaits at Raja’s restaurant Peri-Peri Guys, which opened on Dec. 17. and is serving peerless peri in Hicksville. His chicken — juicy, tender, organic — gets it signature flavor from a three-step process: 24 hours of bathing in a marinade powered by garlic, lemon juice and African bird’s eye chile peppers (called piri-piri in Mozambique, where they’re grown), precooking in a special oven, and finally flame-grilling while basting the meat with sauces of varying degrees of heat.
Raja’s parents left Pakistan for Scotland in the ’70s, and he was born and raised in Glasgow, whereas a teen he "fell in love with Nando’s," a South African peri-peri chicken chain that’s enjoyed worldwide success, especially in the UK. Later, he also fell in love with a Long Islander. "I had such a passion for peri peri, I moved here with the goal of opening my own place."
Raja made two pivotal decisions when he arrived stateside five years ago that led him to the this day. First, he began serving his apprenticeship in the chicken trade, becoming a partner in several Popeye’s franchises. Second, the 38-year-old joined a soccer league.
"I’m soccer mad," Raja laughed. "I play three times a week." On the field at Storm Academy in Hempstead one day, Greg Raposo overheard him talking about his dream project. "He said, ‘are you talking about peri-peri? I’m Portuguese.’" The bird’s eye chile has been a part of that country’s cooking since the 15th-century, when Mozambique was a colony, and it was the Portuguese who combined the pepper with citrus and other spices and created peri-peri sauce. The two footballers hit it off, Raposo agreed to help fund the venture, and Peri-Peri Guys was born.
"Choose your chicken, choose your spice level, and you’re good to go," said Raja of his menu, most of which features his top-drawer take on peri-peri. Prices range from $7.89 for a quarter-chicken or six wings, to $9.89 for a breast or skewers, to $14.89 for a half-chicken, which includes your pick of sauces (lemon-herb, mango-lime, mild, hot and "the hottest we go for now"). Also available are combo meals with sides such as mashed potatoes and mac ’n cheese (both $3.99) and peri-peri fries ($4.99), all solidly executed, an appetizer of fried cauliflower florets ($6.89), a delicious chicken sandwich called the King which, in a nod to Raja’s British roots, includes a hash brown patty under the bun ($10.89). The menu also includes a $10.89 burger with turkey bacon (all meats are halal), salads, vegan options and more.
When it comes to peri-peri, though, everything comes down to the sauce. Thankfully, Raja’s is terrific. "I have my own recipe, which I created in Scotland," he said quietly, looking over his shoulder with a smile. "Whenever I say ‘recipe’ I always turn my head, just to make sure no one is listening."
Peri-Peri Guys is at 285 S. Broadway in Hicksville, 516-470-0303, periperiguys.com. Opening hours are Monday to Thursday from noon to 10 p.m., and Friday to Sunday from noon to 11 p.m.