Poutine, bagels, smoked meat, and Portuguese chicken. Look at any food round-up of Montreal dishes and you’ll see these four items listed as essential, signature foods. But how did piri piri chicken, a dish that wasn’t even a traditional component of Portuguese cuisine before the 1970s, end up here?
According to Maria Castanheira, it all started with her father, Francisco Pedro Castanheira, who opened the first Portuguese chicken restaurants in Montreal fifty years ago. Francisco Pedro died in 2003, but his family business continues to thrive in the form of Plateau cornerstones Coco Rico and Jano.
Originally from a small town in the province of Ribatejo in central Portugal, Francisco Pedro grew up in a family of carpenters, merchants, and cattle farmers — and he knew his way around a grill. “After a long day of work, the family would reunite to enjoy some petiscos [snacks] that were prepared by each member of the family. So, he already had a touch in the kitchen,” Castanheira said in an e-mail written in collaboration with her siblings João de Deus, Lucy, Fernando, Conceicão, Nelson, Vergilio, and Carlos.
But Francisco Pedro wasn’t a big chicken fan. When he first immigrated to Montreal just ahead of Expo ‘67, Francisco Pedro got a job at Warshaw, an iconic now-closed Saint Laurent supermarket. One day, he thought he’d try some rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, a long-time Quebec staple (Chalet BBQ and St-Hubert BBQ, for instance, opened in the 1940s and ‘50s). “What a surprise he had when eating the chicken,” the Castanheiras wrote. “What he thought would be delicious, was the complete opposite. The chicken was without flavour. He thought: ‘I could do much better.’”
Francisco Pedro went on to open a restaurant on de Bullion and Napoléon in the heart of the Plateau, which had seen an influx of thousands of Portuguese immigrants in the 1950s and ‘60s. Before it closed in the early eighties, the restaurant, straight-forwardly named Castanheira do Ribatejo, served rotisserie chicken spun in its juices and basted with a homemade sauce.
Meanwhile, a version of piri piri, or peri peri meaning “pepper, pepper” in Swahili, was popping up all over Portugal and in South Africa. Piri piri was concocted in East Africa using chili peppers originally from the Americas and a combination of spices like paprika, bay leaves, and tarragon. As Portugal decolonized in the 1970s, members of its diaspora in Angola and Mozambique brought piri piri back with them. Somewhere along the way, Francisco Pedro caught wind of piri piri and stirred up his own recipe at home for chicken-loving Montrealers. “My father used to say that his sauce was one of the keys for his success. And still is,” the Castanheiras wrote. The exact ingredients of their piri piri sauce is, of course, a family secret.
In 1970, Francisco Pedro went on to open Coco Rico, a grab-and-go rotisserie steps from his old job at Warshaw, and in 1974, Jano, a sit-down grilled chicken restaurant also on Saint-Laurent.
The story of Montreal’s love affair with Portuguese chicken isn’t complete without mentioning a beloved spot on the corner of Rachel and de Bullion. Romados has a reputation for drawing passersby with the plume of fragrant smoke that it sends off onto the street. Once inside, diners cross the bakery’s long counter stacked with delicious-looking pastéis de nata (custard tarts) and powdery loaves of bread, before arriving at the smoke-filled back area where they can order a Portuguese chicken meal with spicy piri piri slathered over everything.
“I feel like the reason people come back to Romados and remember Romados is it’s more than just taste,” said Manny Machado, son of the restaurant’s founder, Fernando Machado. “It’s the whole experience of having that moment where you taste that chicken and that spice hits your tongue and it’s just visceral. It’s more than just flavour, it’s a body high.”
Fernando immigrated to Montreal in the 1960s, but he longed for the flavours of home, so decided to open a bakery in 1994 specializing in the Portuguese custard tarts and broa (Portuguese cornbread). He also sold seafood like sardines and codfish, as well as a dish that had quickly become a go-to fast food in Portugal — rotisserie chicken cooked over charcoal. “The chicken was just like a little add-on that my dad was sort of like, ‘Hey, we should do that.’ It wasn’t even the main focus of the business,” Manny said.
Despite being a fixture in Portuguese cuisine and much of it fished off the coast of Newfoundland, seafood just wasn’t as popular as Romados’ chicken. Montrealers wanted that sticky charcoal-fired bird slathered in spicy piri piri. “It just became chicken and chicken and chicken, to the point where we had to revamp the space and allow for a full kitchen to be put into place so that we could sell chicken the way people wanted us to sell the chicken,” Machado said, adding that the business really took off in 1999, after some of those changes.
Since Romados streamlined its business to focus on Portuguese chicken (it also added its own highly sought-after take on poutine), similar restaurants have popped up not just in the Plateau, but across Montreal. “I’m not going to claim that we’re the reason for why there is this much Portuguese chicken, but I will tell you that most of the competitors worked at Romados before they had their own restaurant,” Machado said. Some of these include current rivals Ma Poulle Mouillée and Piri Piri.
Portuguese-style chicken has amassed loyal followings around the globe, including in other parts of North America and in the UK, where South African chain Nando’s has become a phenomenon. But Machado believes that appreciation for the dish is more intense here than anywhere else. “The fanaticism of Portuguese chicken does not exist in other cities,” he says. “It is very much a Montreal thing.”
- A Brief History of Frango Assado com Piri-Piri [The Culture Trip]
- The Tumultuous, World-Traveling Origins of Piri Piri Sauce [Thrillist]
Correction (February 6, 2023): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Coco Rico opened in 1974 instead of 1970.