Zweli's Piri Piri Kitchen Brings Zimbabwean Flavor and Local Soul to a Durham Strip Mall Dominated by Chains | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Zweli's Piri Piri Kitchen Brings Zimbabwean Flavor and Local Soul to a Durham Strip Mall Dominated by Chains 

click to enlarge Piri piri chicken with curried cabbage, chakalaka, and collards

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Piri piri chicken with curried cabbage, chakalaka, and collards

After spending years building a successful catering business, chef Zwelibanzi Williams (she goes by Zweli) has finally opened her first brick-and-mortar restaurant. Zweli's Piri Piri Kitchen, which Williams opened in July with her husband, Leonardo, is a hidden gem in the chain-restaurant-dominated Oak Creek Village Shopping Center (save for El Chapin, a Guatemalan spot a few doors down). Williams's restaurant is personal not just by name: She's gone all in on the dishes she grew up eating in her native Zimbabwe. Though piri piri chicken dominates the menu—piri piri refers to the namesake pepper and marinade—diners gain a deeper appreciation for Zimbabwe's culinary flavors and influences in the scene-stealing sides, such as chakalaka, a South African dish of stewed beans and vegetables.

Vibe: The dining room has an eclectic rec-room feel, with red painted walls hung with local artwork, African beats on the speakers, and hand-hewn Zimbabwean bowls adorning the tables. The open floor plan's seating options include large, wooden block tables, banquet-style six- to eight-tops, window-adjacent high-tops, and stools lining the partially open kitchen, where you can post up while you wait for a to-go order. The warm service and homey vibes are echoed by the word of the month on the chalkboard menu: Mauya, for example, means "we welcome you" in Shona, Zimbabwe's main language, or siyambonga, which means "we thank you" in Ndebele, Williams's native language.

Menu: The piri piri menu is divided into "for one", which includes either a quarter- or half-chicken, skewers, breast, or wings, served either solo or with a choice of one or two sides, and "platters" for sharing. The 'full,' which includes a whole chicken with two large sides or 'wing,' twenty-four flame-grilled wings, each feed two or three people, while the 'jumbo,' which includes two whole chickens with two extra-large sides, serves four to six. Non-meat eaters dine well here, too. Most sides are vegetarian or vegan, and you can build a satisfying platter of three; or you can get the grilled piri piri tofu for a taste of Zweli's signature peppery sauce. Sandwiches, salads, a kids' menu, and weekly specials round out the mix.

What to order: If you eat meat, opt for the grilled piri piri chicken, which melds peppery spice and a vinegar twang with a subtle flame-licked smokiness. A quarter chicken (choose dark or light meat) and two sides combo is filling, but if you're hungry it's easy to put away a third side (plus, it's hard to pick just two). There's the chakalaka, tender beans simmered with peppers, tomatoes, and shredded carrots for a touch of sweetness, cooked until they collapse into a creamy consistency. You'll also want the collards, which are cooked with dovi, or peanut butter; in Zimbabwe, dovi is traditionally used in a chicken stew, but here, it lends a creamy foil to the braised greens' pleasing bitterness. And don't miss the sleeper hit of fried curry cabbage, which boasts a meaty texture and umami-rich flavor.

If you're craving starch, opt for jollof rice, a West African tomato-based rice dish (which has become popular in Zimbabwe) whose texture and hue land somewhere between yellow rice and paella; it has a pleasant, thrumming heat. Tuesday's oxtail special is destined for repeat status on carnivores' fall-winter hit list, featuring a curried stew of braised oxtail, potatoes, and carrots, served with sadza, a Zimbabwean staple of cooked cornmeal.

Price point: A quarter chicken and two sides is $10.99; a la carte sides are $4.50. Platters are $12 for sides, $29.39 for wings, $31.99 for full, $55.69 for jumbo. The oxtail special is $18.99.

Perfect for: Group lunch; family feast; weeknight dinner takeout; game day wings

laylakh@indyweek.com

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