I visited Tamworth for the first time last week and got the impression that it’s the sort of town that misses Woolworths. Streets were quiet, almost empty save for an ambulance outside a pub and the whir of a police helicopter above. There were a few shoppers milling about; I mostly felt quite solitary and transient.
My sentiments might have been exacerbated because I was expecting floods of tourists. So far in 2024, the Staffordshire market town has been abuzz with the steaming hum of viral potatoes: three halves of buttered jacket covered in mountainous amounts of baked beans and cheddar cheese.
This is thanks to local “jacket potato man” Benjamin Newman (aka Spudman) who has been serving hundreds, if not thousands of portions everyday after going viral on TikTok, where he has, in the space of four months, amassed more than two million followers and enjoys that number times by whatever when it comes to daily views. Queues have become so long that the wait time for Spudman’s £5 potatoes reached three hours last Saturday. A couple travelled from Malaysia to witness the brouhaha.
The purpose of my trip to the Midlands was to interview Spudman, but of course he was taking a rare day off when I turned up. I eventually tracked him down to a coffee shop, so it wasn’t a wasted journey, but not before I’d wandered around, chanced upon the omnipresent big Wetherspoon’s for a swift pint of Coke Zero, and found somewhere for lunch.
Options were sparse and my phone battery on its way out. I didn’t have time to scroll through pub and restaurant recommendations online, not that Tamworth has been covered much in this regard. TripAdvisor is the pits and never an advisable tool and Staffordshire Live is run by Reach PLC, which means the website is impossible to read.
But I found a place called Piri Fino, a Portuguese – well, Portuguese-inspired – chicken joint in the centre of town. I’ve since learned there are nine branches dotted around the Midlands (and Sheffield, which I count as the north), but it is not the powerhouse that is Nando’s – an easy and obvious comparison.
Imitation might be virtuous, flattering; certainly I’m surprised Nando’s hasn’t been gunning for Piri Fino, because the menu is stark in its similarity. There are even flags denoting spice level stuck in the top of the various preparations of chicken. On the menu, familiar and modern high-street classics like chicken wings, wraps and burgers; sides of spicy rice, corn on the cob and “seasoned” fries; halloumi is abundant; platters feature flame-grilled, marinated assortments. The only real variation I could decipher during my fleeting visit was the appearance of pasta.
And so unremarkable, but a safe bet? I suppose, but what I enjoyed about Piri Fino was that it was superior to Nando’s, a mainstay of my teenage years and an occasional point of reconnaissance even today. I can’t say Piri Fino trumps Nando’s across the board because I didn’t sample the whole menu, but as far as the chicken – the main event – is concerned, I found it more tender, flavourful and less dry. Will it win awards? No. But a quick slab of Portuguese-style chicken, spiced comfortably and cooked well on a grill, was precisely what I needed before venturing out into the drizzle to wonder whether I’d messed up my assignment.
This speaks volumes: the baseline of eating out in Britain is improving all the time. Years ago, small-town dining was a curry house, a Chinese takeaway, an average pub and a Pizza Express. There might have been a “hidden gem” of an Italian – not actually particularly good, but fun – and possibly a passable Thai in a pub somewhere near a roundabout. Today, these remain, but choices are ever more expansive, and that is joyful.