I admit I've turned my nose up a little at the fast casual dining scene as I don't like standing in line, pouring my own drinks and so on, but more importantly, the food is usually pretty blah.
Not so at Humdingers. I was so pleasantly surprised by my recent trips to the newly opened Germantown Parkway location that I know I'll be eating there again and plan to give the whole fast-casual approach a closer look.
First things first. Let's talk about piri piri sauce, which is the backbone of Humdingers. My culinary bible, "The Food Encyclopedia," tells me that it means pepper pepper in Swahili, and I'll not argue the point as indeed the piri piri sauce is made from the -- ta-da! -- piri piri pepper. It makes a popular condiment in Africa and in the Portuguese-speaking countries.
I was introduced to it when a friend brought me a bottle of the sauce after a visit to Portugal, which is the country that is most identified with piri piri today. The sauce he brought me was in a tiny bottle and it's a brilliant clear red, very unlike the thicker sauces served at Humdingers. Yet apparently there are dozens of varieties, so I'm not posing a question of authenticity. Just giving a little background.
At Humdingers, four bottles of sauce in graduating heat sit on the table for you to use as you like, and you order piri piri chicken from the kitchen with your desired heat level. I think, though, that my chicken was probably prepared incorrectly.
There were certainly problems that day, as the restaurant was out of half-chickens when we were there last Sunday. Apologies were made and responsibility accepted ("Someone dropped the ball," we were told), and well, sometimes things happen. It was unfortunate, but I ordered the boneless chicken breast instead and asked for hot piri piri.
I expected that the breast would be cooked, coated with the sauce, then grilled again for a little caramelization. What I received was a breast just coated with sauce, which I could have done at my table. I think it was a mistake, but that's the extent of anything negative I have to say. (Well, boneless, skinless breasts don't have a lot of flavor in general but this is not limited to Humdingers. See the nutritional breakdown in a bit, though; it could be worth a little sacrifice.)
If fish is your thing, I don't know where else you'll find it grilled and served with rice, a topping and a vegetable side for about $10. I had the grouper "naked" and the snapper blackened. I recommend both methods. The fillets were both cooked until flaky, not the slightest bit overdone. Both the grilled asparagus and the grilled zucchini strips were fresh, firm and seasoned enough for a little kick, yet not too much. That's good, as the flavor of the vegetables come through, and you can always kick it up with the sauces at the table.
You order tacos individually or as a two- or three-taco combo with a side. The sauteed fish taco is not "authentic," but by that I only mean that it's not like a fish taco you'd find on the beach in Mexico or California. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The fish comes in a grilled flour tortilla and is topped with a creamy sauce, piri piri and a bit on Asian slaw. It's delicious; roll it up burrito style and dig in.
I had my 8-year-old niece with me on my first visit, and we ordered the calamari for our appetizer. She requested it but had second thoughts as we waited: "Should we eat calamari at a fast food place?" she asked.
"Fast casual," I corrected, and her fears were groundless as the calamari was pretty darned good. It's not the best I've ever eaten, but it beats plenty of full-service restaurants, too. It was fried crisp, tender to the bite (not rubbery), and the sweet Thai chili sauce made for nice dipping.
While the skewered shrimp we had as an entree were good, they were a bit on the small side. The Humdingers shrimp, however, were excellent. Dee-licious.
Smallish but plump shrimp are fried in a very light batter and tossed in a spicy aoili (a garlicky mayonnaise) with a touch of piri piri. I could happily eat an order of the spicy, creamy and crunchy appetizer for my entree.
It wouldn't be the best choice from a nutritional standpoint, though, and it's worth pointing out that a meal at Humdingers can fit in just about anyone's diet. All of the fish except the crispy fish (440 calories) and the salmon (290 calories) weigh in at less than 200 calories per serving. A side of rice is 90 calories, and the vegetable sides such as the zucchini or the slaw are about 35 calories. Top your fish with the cucumber lime and yogurt sauce (my favorite) for just another 20 calories. Sub in chicken for the fish and the boneless breast is just 280 calories.
Not bad. And it tastes good, too.
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 1134 N. Germantown Pkwy. is the location reviewed; the East Memphis restaurant is at 6300 Poplar
Telephone: (901) 271-2912
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Snapper and grouper entree (each $9.99); sauteed fish taco ($2.75); Humdingers shrimp appetizer ($6.99); calamari appetizer ($6.49)
Alcohol: License for beer and wine pending and expected within a couple of weeks at most.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars