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As many times as we read "fast casual" as a description for Boneheads Grilled Fish and Piri Piri Chicken, the restaurant which recently opened at the Promenade on Chenal, we just couldn't get our mind around "fast casual." Maybe it was because Boneheads, an Atlanta-based outfit, sounded like the hifalutin chain Bonefish Grill. Maybe it was because it was another new restaurant among many good ones in the fancy Promenade.
Having never experienced a Boneheads anywhere else, it proved to be nothing like we expected. Four of us took in the new Boneheads, which occupies an outbuilding abutting Chenal at the main turn into the Promenade shopping center. It was busy as it should be for a Friday night, but we had no wait to order. We recognized friends who were coming and going with pickup orders. We saw a bright, smallish dining area — not something fancy that screamed $20 or more a plate. We saw two tops and four tops amid the sky-blue walls and fish market art. Diners who had ordered placed navy cards with white numbers into the rings of a holder on their table that also contained condiments. We noted the menu on the wall as we breezed right up the entryway to the counter, where a friendly fellow (the owner of the franchise, we presume) was ready to help.
And then we realized that Boneheads was yet another one of these new chain restaurants that specialize in what is typically better than the usual fast food. You pay a little more, but you get a lot more, and it tastes really good.
Think Chipotle. Or perhaps Pei Wei. Also some locally owned spots have opened up recently, for that matter, with the menu-on-the-wall, order-from-the-counter-and-sit-down approach. This is less-than-fancy dining for the 21st century. Another friendly employee brings out the food, sometimes all at once if you're lucky. And there you go.
In this case, Boneheads has latched onto two items as its signatures — obviously grilled fish and Piri Piri (pronounced pee-ree pee-ree) chicken — and has included plenty of other choices, most of them healthier and tastier than a diner might find at many other "fast casual" places.
Before you think Boneheads is a boneheaded name, understand that supposedly (perhaps apocryphally) one Georgia fellow, with an idea for selling grilled fish in a casual setting, and a South African chef, who wanted to market a new pepper sauce with African Birdseye peppers providing the potent kick, happened to collide in their cars on an Atlanta street. When they got finished thinking how boneheaded they both had been, they realized they had visions that meshed.
We know, it seems too good to be true. But nevertheless, welcome to the flavor of Piri Piri pepper sauce. Boneheads was born as a restaurant in 2006 and grew into a small group of eateries in the Southeast. But now a three-man management group that includes one franchisee and a couple of successful operators with other recognizable food companies have set their sights on opening 15 or so new stores through the end of this year, and they plan on 150 franchises being sold over the next five years, according to the company.
Maybe Piri-Piri sauce will indeed take the country by a storm. We liked it in at least two of its varieties: mild and hot. There's a lemon-and-herb version, extremely tame and vinegary, and an extra hot that we'll perhaps try someday. Hot is plenty hot for the average palate.
So, how do you enjoy Piri Piri sauce? You have Boneheads serve up a half-roasted chicken ($10.99) that has been cooked in the stuff. We went with the hot, recommended by the man at the counter, who also assured us that a half chicken would not be too much to handle.
For an oven-roasted chicken, it more than lived up to expectations. We suppose you don't put it on your sign as your specialty if it won't. The chicken was moist and not too spicy (we also sampled the various bottles of Piri Piri sauce at the table with each bite, and that brought the heat). All we had left at the end were bones, several soiled napkins and grins from our dining partners who enjoyed watching us take down a bird.
For an appetizer, we chose the calamari ($6.99), which was surprisingly fresh-tasting considering this was fast-casual and far inland, and it was enhanced both with a thick, nicely seasoned batter and a Thai chili sauce. The rings sat on a bed of cilantro slaw (thankfully a more Asian style of slaw instead of a creamy mayo mixture). The calamari and its extras got four nods of approval.
Then, besides the half chicken, we tackled three other entrees, including a couple of grilled fish versions ($12.99). We were happy to see a large portion of salmon, impressive considering the cost (this would have run $20 or more at a fine-dining restaurant) and perfectly cooked and seasoned. The restaurant, having only been open a short time, didn't have all its fish available on this night (we were a day early, we were told), but it did have a nice serving of mahi-mahi that, like the salmon, was plenty of fish for one diner, moist and flaky and expertly seasoned.
The sides were a blend of hit and miss: The seasoned rice, which must have been prepared in rich chicken broth and herbs, was sensational. The sweet potatoes — cut into large slices — were outstanding, as were the large sweet potato fries. However, the grilled asparagus left us wanting (just three spears), and there just wasn't much to the grilled zucchini, especially considering how well the entrees came across.
The only entree disappointment was an order of shrimp skewers (two for $10.99). The shrimp were too small for skewers, not to mention skewered too long on the grill, leaving them a little tough.
We capped the night off with a chocolate chip cookie (the Otis Spunkmeyer version) and a humongous chunk of strawberry layer cake ($3.99) that cooled the palate after all that Piri Piri.
Beer and wine weren't available yet, but Boneheads has one of those newfangled Coca-Cola dispensers that offers about every Coke product available, along with tea.
As Little Rock midtowners, we probably wouldn't make the West Little Rock eatery a regular destination, but the newcomer is an attractive option for folks shopping around Chenal or living in the neighborhood and wanting a nice, healthy "fast" change of pace. There are Angus beef burger options if you must, as well as fish (even catfish) or shrimp tacos, fried shrimp, and plenty more offerings to keep it interesting.