Chef Paul Friedman and co-owners Thomas Nguyen and Michael Tran are known for the abstract splendor of their two upscale Peli Peli locations. But if all goes as planned, they one day may be more closely identified with cafeteria-style cuisine. According to Friedman, the partners are shooting for an April or May opening for their upcoming fast casual concept, Peli Peli Kitchen. The restaurant will be at 9090 Katy Freeway, not far from the Energy Corridor spot where Friedman once owned the Great Charcoal Chicken Company.
"The system is going to be very similar to Chipotle," Friedman states. Really? From he of the hanging Espetada skewer? "I really feel that my food is so unique and different that I don't want to lose a segment of my population. This allows us to reach a much broader segment," he explains.
That doesn't mean the cuisine will lack any of the Peli Peli punch. As Friedman describes it, diners will choose their proteins and get them on plates, rolls or tortillas. They'll choose fixings from a cafeteria-style line, then end up at the "Sauceology Bar," where an employee will help pair meals with curries, chutneys and salsas designed to complement the dishes.
On an early draft of the menu, the most expensive dish is the $15 oxtail with fried mieliepap, a polenta-like porridge indigenous to South Africa. Other entrées include spicy chicken skewers, chicken curry and babotie, a pie filled with curried beef. Friedman's signature South African beef jerky, called biltong, will be served in sandwich form, as will baby prawns, in the chef's take on a lobster roll.
The goal in creating the menu, Friedman says, was to have no overlap with the pricier Peli Pelis. "Why go to the main restaurant when you can go here and it's a lot cheaper?" he asks. "I decided to make it really Southern comfort food you can't cook at home. I don't know how much more south you can go."
It's not truly Southern comfort without a tipple or two. At Peli Peli Kitchen, that will translate to local craft beer and spouts of white and red versions of Peli Peli's South African-grown private label wines.
Friedman's son, Kyle, is serving as general contractor for the property, which the chef anticipates will be a more literal take on South African ambience than at the other Peli Pelis. "We're putting you on the plain," he says.
The partners are running a Kickstarter campaign for the project, but not because they need funding. Instead, it's about making fans feel included in the new endeavor. Even a $25 donation is rewarded with the donor's name inscribed on a wall in every Peli Peli Kitchen location.
And there may be quite a few. The team hopes to expand far beyond Houston. According to a press release, the Peli Peli franchise model may include one or two locations in each major city. But the partners envision 10 or more Peli Peli Kitchens per metropolitan area. It would certainly be the first South African fast casual chain to accomplish such a feat. "Just wait," says Friedman. "You're in for a treat."