Bite Street Food at Chrisp Street Market, Poplar

Street food has been around in London for longer than you think.  Long before the Thames ceased to be a working river, oysters were sold on the banks for hungry dockers.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, baked potatoes were sold from shop fronts and house windows in some of the more notorious London slums as a form of cheap sustenance.  And we all remember the ubiquitous kebab vans outside of late night bars and gig venues in the more recent past.

In recent years, however, street food has taken on a new form offering affordable gourmet food to Londoners.  Whether on their lunch hour or lazily meandering around markets at the weekend, the street food van is never far away.  Once, Borough Market was the only real option for street food, but more recently markets have begun to pop up across the capital, some in rather unexpected places.

Poplar, in East London, is not the first place you think of as a gastronomic destination; but the new Bite Street Food collective are seeking to rejuvenate the culinary reputation of the area right at its centre:  Chrisp Street Market.  With traders hailing from the local area, and across London, and entertainment from local performers, a charmingly frayed town square is transformed into a market to rival any lunchtime markets across London.  I was invited to come down and check it out.  And told to come hungry.

We Walk the Line Coffee.

We Walk the Line Coffee.

My first stop, as always, was for coffee.  On the far side of the market, I found a man making coffee seemingly whilst cycling.  We Walk the Line is a social initiative to encourage disadvantaged young people and ex-offenders become entrepreneurs through selling coffee.  The bike powers the grinder, which grinds up the Nude Espresso beans for the coffee.  A very good cup indeed.

An humitas empanada: corn and chilli.

An humitas empanada: corn and chilli.

After this, I popped to Boca Empanadas, which sell those little Argentine pastries I love so much.  My favourite is the humitas, which contains corn and chilli.  These were perfect – crispy pastry and both sweet and spicy in the middle.  Limiting myself to one was very difficult.

Jerk chicken. Bargain.

Jerk chicken. Bargain.

My plan was to try a number of small items, so that I could sample as much as possible.  On the hunt for my next snack, I came across the bargain of the century:  three jerk wings for ONE POUND.  My weakness for good jerk is well documented and I couldn’t resist.  These were really good.  Spicy with the unmistakable hit of scotch bonnets, with an underlying kick of lime and allspice.

Vegan burger from Ruperts Street.

Vegan burger from Ruperts Street.

Vegan street food has been growing in popularity in recent years, so I was not surprised to see a vegan vendor on the site, Ruperts Street.  I managed to snag the very last item of the day: a vegan burger.  A sweet potato and lentil patty with a smear of relish on a wholemeal seeded bun.  It came with a delicious kale salad, for extra health points.

The lovely Cat and her cake creations.

The lovely Cat and her cake creations.

Never one to end a meal without having dessert, I popped over to Cat Food Cakes, to see the lovely Cat and her crazy creations.  The market took place on Hallowe’en, so there were some beautiful cupcakes and brownies with spiderwebs, pumpkins and ghosts.  Spying a chocolate cupcake decorated with candy corns, I quickly nabbed it.  A candy corn in the UK is a difficult thing to find.  Sadly Cat did not have a supplier: her boyfriend brought them back from a trip to the states.

Bite will be taking place on the last Friday of every month at Chrisp Street Market in Poplar.  If you should find yourself free on a Friday lunchtime, it is definitely worth a trip over to check it out.  The vendors are not those that you will find at the bigger street food markets, such as KERB, Brockley or Broadway; but they are an excellent representation of cooking in the diverse east end.  I also spied a Ghanian lady selling jollof rice, and a young man making Louisiana gumbo, but could not manage all of these in the same afternoon.  It seems another visit is in order.

Also: Canary Wharf office workers, take note.

For transparency, I was invited to visit Bite Street Food.

A Few Things from Baden-Baden, Germany

I’m not quite sure how, but it is October tomorrow.  It doesn’t really feel like it as it is unseasonably warm in London at the moment, and I just got back from holiday.

For the past few days, Ollie and I have been in Baden-Baden.  If you’re not familiar, it is a little town in Germany’s Black Forest, south of Frankfurt and close to the French border.  It is famous for its thermal waters and its beautiful spas attract people from all over the region.  We spent quite a considerable amount of time at the Carcalla Baths.  It was a holiday after all.

As well as this, there was, of course, lots of eating and drinking.  Here are a few highlights:

 

Beer
Much to my constant dismay, I have never liked beer.  Fortunately, my husband is rather a fan and got to sample quite a few different beers during our time there.  With Oktoberfest imminent, a lot of the bars were promoting their own hausbrau.  Two of the best were at Amadeus and Lowenbrau.  The latter has a really nice beer garden.

 

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Flammkuchen
This is an Alsace speciality that is also known as Tarte Flambee on the French side of the border.  It is a very thin, almost pizza-like dough, traditionally topped with sour cream, bacon and onions.  We ate at the Theaterkeller, where they have a number of different varities of flammkuchen, including this one with breasola.

 

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Black Forest Cake
No trip to the Black Forest is complete without sampling the schwarzenwalden kirschetorte, the region’s most famous cake.  Many were put off by the old Sara Lee frozen desserts of the 1990s, but the real deal is a thing of beauty.  Light chocolate sponge, slightly-boozy-slightly-sour cherries and an abundance of blousy whipped cream.

 

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Sausages
As ubiquitous in Germany as good beer, you never have to look hard to find a good sausage.  We found these at a farmers’ market in the small town of Buhl, just outside of Baden-Baden; three euros for a gargantuan sausage in bread.  We both opted for the feuerwurst, a sausage heavily spiced with paprika and chilli, and doused it in dijon mustard.  Three euros.

 

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More Cake
You could eat cake every day for a year in Baden-Baden and never be satisfied.  I cannot help but love a place that takes baking so seriously.  This was another favourite cake from the trip, from a small riverside bakery in Buhl: a chocolate and almond cake topped with sweet apricots.

 

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Burgers
Not really a German speciality, but I always like to try the local take on a burger.  This one was from Leo’s, a famous Baden-Baden restaurant where Bill Clinton apparently dined.  It was 18 euros, but it was also very good.  The meat was excellent quality and cooked medium (not quite medium-rare, sadly) and the other components worked well.  My husband had an excellent fillet steak for not much more money, that came with béarnaise sauce and dauphinoise.  A rare case of food envy.

 

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Doughnuts
There’s only so many times you can quote Ich bin eine Berliner whilst holding a doughnut.  This one came from a bakery in a small village called Steinbach.  The only thing open on a Sunday morning for miles.  Luckily they did coffee too.

One Year Ago:  Five Spice Duck Legs.

Burger League: Flat Iron

The Flat Iron Burger

 The Restaurant:  Flat Iron, 17 Beak Street, London W1F 9RW

The Hungry Ones:

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Claire (Queen of the BBQ)

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Claire (Queen of the BBQ)

Gemma and Claire Ordered:  The Flat Iron Burger, dripping-cooked chips, roast aubergine, red wine.

The Scores:

Going to a no-reservations restaurant in Soho for lunch is always a bit of a gamble.  You could roll a six, walk straight to a table and be in for a fantastic lunch; similarly, you could roll a one, be turned away and end up at the local branch of Pizza Express.  Taking lunch early usually ups the odds of getting in somewhere good, but even this is risky – today we turned up at Pitt Cue at 12.15pm, a mere 15 minutes after opening, to be told there was a 25 minute wait.  Fine if you have the luxury of a leisurely day, impossible if you are on your lunch hour.  Luckily, there were several good restaurants around the corner and, being still early, we managed to nab a table at Flat Iron on Beak Street.

Ironically, Flat Iron is famous for the length of its queues.  Once word got out that there was a restaurant selling excellent £10 steaks, hungry Londoners could barely contain their excitement.  Once when I walked past, the queue had extended well past Carnaby Street.  Their main thing is the steak:  the name of the restaurant, in fact, comes from the only cut they sell:  the flat iron cut which, I found out after some online digging, is cut from the featherblade.  Occasionally, they add a lunch special burger to their menu, which is also £10 and made from the flat iron meat, and which drew us in from the street.  According to our waitress it had been voted ‘the best burger in London’, although she didn’t say by whom.

The burger was actually really, really good.  I found out this afternoon that the patties are deep-fried in beef fat, which certainly explains a lot.  Having never had a burger made with flat iron meat before, I had nothing to compare it to, but this meat was incredibly flavoursome.  The patty had the slightly rough texture of a homemade burger rather than the ubiquitous perfectly-round patties found in lesser quality restaurants.  It was perfectly pink in the middle and dark and crispy on the outside.  The burger comes with bernaise sauce and finely chopped shallot as standard and, controversially, comes without cheese.  Cheese is usually a must for both Claire and myself on all burgers, but the buttery richness of the bernaise sauce means that you don’t really miss it.  Even a thin slice of slappy cheese would be overkill.

Roasted aubergine, dripping-fried chips

The best part was the side dishes.  Claire, having been here before, was the expert and suggested we order both the dripping-fried chips and the roasted aubergine.  The chips require little more description than that they are fried in dripping – if, like me, this is your bag, you will be in heaven – light and crispy and soft in the middle.  The roasted aubergine was like a little dish of aubergine parmigiana with just the right amount of cooking.  Did I mention that we had a carafe of red wine too?  A bargain at £11 and very, very good.  It would have been rude not to.

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Burger League: Tommi’s Burger Joint

Burger with cheese and bacon and fries

The Restaurant:  Tommi’s Burger Joint, 30 Thayer Street, London W1U 2QP

The Hungry Ones:

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Claire (Queen of the BBQ)

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Claire (Queen of the BBQ)

Gemma and Claire ordered: Burger with cheese and bacon, fries, Diet Coke

The Scores:

I am never happier than when I find a good lunch spot within walking distance of my office.  As I am a fast walker and happy to cover long distances this thankfully covers swathes of Soho, Marylebone and Fitzrovia, which have an abundance of restaurants and cafes on every street.  When there is a burger on sale at any of these establishments, I am even happier, for who does not love to spend an afternoon at their desk happily full?  I have been trying to get over to Tommi’s Burger Joint for ages, not least because I was so intrigued by the concept of an Icelandic burger restaurant.  They initially started as a pop-up following the success of several sites in Reykjavik, and within months moved to a permanent site on a busy Marylebone intersection.  My knowledge of Icelandic food is limited to a trip I took there in the winter of 2010. The sushi was good, the pizza excellent, the hakarl more than a little smelly and the sheep heads in the supermarket freezer sections, terrifying.  Being in my last year of University, I had not the means to try other delicacies such as whale and puffin – Iceland is an expensive place, even after the financial crash they suffered a few years ago.  Luckily, my lunch buddy Claire lived in Reykjavik for a while, so has a far more extensive knowledge than I.

There is no fermented shark meat or pickled fish at Tommi’s Burger Joint, in fact the menu barely sets it apart from other London burger joints, but in such a crowded market, that is probably just as well.  It is one of those grab-a-seat-and-order-at-the-counter places and with no front of house direction, there a lot of frantic eye-darting among competing groups looking for a table.  Luckily, there were only two of us and we managed to grab a seat within minutes.  Most people in the restaurant seemed to be opting for the lunch deal, which is a burger, fries and a can of soda for £9.90.  You can then pick your optional extras from a list – I went for cheese, bacon and a little pot of bernaise sauce.  There was something about adding bernaise sauce to a burger that had me salivating all morning.  Speaking of sauces, one of the best features of Tommi’s Burger Joint is their array of free sauces and toppings that you can just go and help yourself to.  Like kids in a toy shop, we filled up the little plastic pots with onion chutney, ketchup, BBQ sauce, pickles (YES), jalapenos and ‘cronions’.  If you have not had the pleasure, cronions are little freeze-dried pieces of onion that look a little like croutons.  Icelanders love them as they top the wieners at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, Reykjavik’s most popular hotdog stand , who count US President Bill Clinton among their die-hard fans.

The wonderful help-yourself-to-stuff bar

The wonderful help-yourself-to-stuff bar

The burger itself was very good and ticked all of the boxes: soft brioche bun, flavoursome patty cooked medium-rare and crispy bacon on top.  A little spread of the bernaise sauce made it extra special.  Unfortunately, the fries were another story.  Did you ever play Theme Park when you were a kid?  I actually didn’t (I was always terrible at computer games), but I can recall it well.  For those of you that didn’t grow up in the mid-90s, Theme Park is a little piece of genius where you design and grow your own theme park with the sole intention of making money.  It was a little bit like Transport Tycoon but more fun.  One of the most tried-and-tested ways of making money was to increase the amount of salt added to the fries.  In doing this, you would make your virtual punters so thirsty that they would spend more money on drinks.  Simple, huh?  I think that *might* be what has happened at Tommi’s Burger Joint, as the fries were the saltiest I had ever tasted.  In fact, the Theme Park comparison came from Claire who said that she hadn’t given the game a second thought in at least a decade until trying those fries.  Seriously, when I left, my lips were like raisins.  And I did buy extra drinks in the office that afternoon.

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Burger League: Burgers and Cocktails

The 'Mac Mountain' Burger complete with a wheel of mac 'n' cheese (yes, a wheel)

The ‘Mac Mountain’ Burger complete with a wheel of mac ‘n’ cheese (yes, a wheel)

The Restaurant: Burgers and Cocktails, 35 James Street, London W1U 1EA.

The Hungry Ones:

Left to Right:  Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Madeleine (Cocktail Lover)

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Madeleine (Cocktail Lover)

Gemma ordered:  Sloppy Joe burger, onion rings, margarita
Madeleine ordered:  Mac Mountain burger, sweet potato fries, mojito

The Scores:

So here’s what happened at the weekend:  After a long afternoon of shopping with my friend, we ended up ravenous near Marble Arch.  My excitement that Roti Chai was a mere five-minute walk away was short-lived as she declared that she did not want Indian food.  Fine.  So instead we walked towards James Street and Patty & Bun where there is a damn good burger and not a thali in sight.  There was, however, an enormous queue.  Just as I contemplated joining it, the heavens opened into a monumental thunderstorm that sent us running into the nearest restaurant that looked like it might have a free table.  This, inevitably, was where it all started to go wrong.  The place we ran into was Burgers and Cocktails.

Despite having a well-researched wishlist of burgers in both London and the UK, I had never heard of Burgers and Cocktails.  Had some unknown gem somehow escaped me?  Not exactly.  Firstly, the place was full of children and, consequently, a chorus of screams.  Secondly, the waiter was darting around the restaurant with such speed that it took us a while to get noticed for a table and even longer to get a menu.  To be honest, this was all forgivable as I was grateful to be somewhere dry with a drinks menu, but what followed was another story.

Margarita, or children's drink? You decide...

Margarita, or children’s drink? You decide…

The margarita I ordered was unceremoniously plonked on my table in a glass beaker.  With ice.  I get that restaurants are trying out new ways to serve their alcohol – cocktails in jam jars and wine in whisky glasses etc., but is it too much, once in a while to get the right glass? Also, I’m pretty sure margaritas aren’t supposed to be sweetened with agave.  Not great for a place that has ‘cocktails’ in its very name.  Madeleine’s mojito was acceptable.  I ordered the Sloppy Joe burger (mixed cheese, chipotle beef chilli, jalapeno relish and sour cream) which arrived medium-rare and pink in the middle, as ordered.  Actually the burger itself was not too bad.  I could not detect any hint of chipotle in the chilli, but the generous amount of jalapenos made up for it by giving it an enormous kick.  The bread was dry and unappetising (yawn).  Madeleine ordered a Mac Mountain which came with the most curious of toppings: a mac ‘n’ cheese ‘wheel’.  This was a portion of mac ‘n’ cheese, shaped into a disc, dipped in breadcrumbs and fried.  When eaten alone, it was actually not that bad, when eaten with the burger it was a little disastrous. The onion rings and sweet potato fries we ordered on the side were surprisingly alright.

The Sloppy Joe burger

The Sloppy Joe burger

I later discovered that the restaurant was owned by the chain Giraffe, which went some way to explain the abundance of children despite having a name that was 50% booze.  It is obvious that the chain is aiming to make a bit of extra cash by jumping on the gourmet fast-food bandwagon – if they brought something new to the market, fine, but this is a rip off of every other place in town.  The strategic positioning across from Patty & Bun, one of London’s most celebrated burger joints, is presumably to pick up its queue-weary diners.  My advice:  if you’re ever in James Street and can’t be bothered to queue at Patty & Bun, walk the extra five minutes and go to MEATLiquor.

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Burger League: MEATLiquor

The Dead Hippie and the Bacon Cheeseburger at MEATLiquor

The Dead Hippie and the Bacon Cheeseburger at MEATLiquor

The Restaurant:  MEATLiquor, 74 Welbeck Street, London W1G 0BA.

The Hungry Ones:

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Katie (Burgerista)

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Katie (Burgerista)

Gemma ordered:  The Dead Hippie, Deep Fried Pickles, Diet Coke
Katie ordered:  Bacon Cheeseburger, Fries, Coke

The Scores:

It was never going to be a surprise that we would have an excellent burger at MEATLiquor, after all I have enjoyed these burgers many times before.  In the old days from the Meatwagon, then at the excellent pop-up #meateasy, handily just around the corner from Goldsmiths College, where I was studying at them time.  The following summer they sold their burgers from The Rye pub in Peckham, a short walk from my flat, before setting up in a more permanent home, MEATLiquor at the back of Oxford Street, close to my office.  It is almost as though they pop up wherever I go.  They have since set up restaurants in various other locations, which I have yet to try out, with the exception of the wonderful MEATMission in Hoxton where you can actually book a table.  My inner planning-fiend rejoiced.

There are two reasons that I go back to MEATLiquor time and time again:  I love the food and I love the atmosphere.  ‘Dive bars’ are two-a-penny these days, and the phrase is almost as cringeworthy as when restaurants describe their food as ‘dirty’.  Travelling around the US on a tour bus, I visited many actual dive bars with dirty food and, without being too crass, regretted it for days later.  The fantasy, on which the inspiration for these venues is based, is far removed from the grim reality.  MEATLiquor, however, seems to set itself apart from this.  The interior is more Berlin squat than mid-Western roadhouse, and it does not rely upon lazy cliches to name its food, there is no ‘filthy’ sauce or innuendo-named cocktails, things just are what they are.  Many others have copied elements from MEATLiquor (food served on trays, cocktails in jam jars, industrial kitchen rolls on the table instead of napkins) that are now almost de rigeur in all gourmet fast-food joints, but they still manage here not to look trite.  I often take visitors from out of town here as I know that, no matter where they are from, they will not have anywhere like this: a dark and loud restaurant, open until 2am with outrageously strong drinks and the best burgers anywhere.

This is a hotly debated topic, but I do think that MEATLiquor has the best burgers in town.  The patties have the exquisite combination of being beautifully rare in the middle and almost burnt around the edges, and are the most flavoursome patties I have ever tried.  My favourite burger, the Dead Hippie, is essentially a double cheeseburger with two patties, a lot of American cheese, a ‘special’ sauce that loosely resembles a Big Mac sauce and, thank the Lord, pickles.  LOTS OF PICKLES.  It is impossible to eat one without using up several sheets of the kitchen roll, but somehow the burger doesn’t fall apart.  You can put a half-eaten burger back on its tray and tuck into your sides without the risk of its components spilling out everywhere.  Speaking of sides: I also almost always order the deep fried pickles with blue cheese dip and a side of chilli cheese fries.  Both are excellent.  In fact, there is little to fault about this place.  The only real bugger is that if you turn up any later than 7pm you will probably have to queue, at the weekends, potentially for quite some time.

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Burger League: Kua’Aina

Cheese and bacon burger at Kua'Aina

Cheese and bacon burger at Kua’Aina

The Restaurant:  Kua’Aina, 26 Foubert’s Place, London W1F 7PP

The Hungry Ones:

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Claire (Queen of the BBQ)

Left to Right: Gemma (The Boozy Rouge), Claire (Queen of the BBQ)

Gemma and Claire ordered: 1/3lb hamburgers with cheese and bacon, sweet potato fries, coleslaw, ginger beer, Sicilian lemonade.

The Scores:

It’s actually been rather a long time since I had a burger.  I had planned to have a burger extravaganza during my Christmas trip to Southampton to settle up the 7Bone vs. Rockstone debate that I am currently embroiled in with my friend, however ate far too much festive food to even contemplate dinner out.  This will have to wait for another time.  On New Year’s eve, we were going to head over for a final BBQ at Will and Claire‘s before they leave their flat (and enormous BBQ behind), but rain and our hangovers prevented us from doing so.  Going out for a burger, or indeed anything indulgent in January, is always approached with some kind of apprehension as almost everybody seems to be on some kind of diet, however it is probably the best time to go as there are fewer queues.

Kua’Aina was bumped near to the top of my list due to its close proximity to my office.  I was also intrigued by the concept of a Hawaiian burger bar as there is little cuisine hailing from this little island state in London.  A couple of years ago I heard rumours of a pop-up Hawaiian omelette bar in Penge, although I never got to see it for myself and suspect it may be an urban myth.  The thought of pineapple and eggs together is almost too much to bear.  Pineapple with savoury food is quite an explosive topic among foodies and many are very outspokenly in the ‘no’ camp.  I have to admit that I am not entirely keen, although The Actress in East Dulwich does a pizza with black forest ham and chilli pineapple that I almost always order when I am there.  I am also enormously partial to cheese and pineapple on sticks.  Kua’Aina offers pineapple as a topping for their burgers, which I am not entirely convinced about, so steer well clear. Pineapple and beef?

Walking into Kua’Aina’s beach shack interior was an odd experience on such a miserably cold London day.  Once seated in the bright basement with its bleached wood walls, you would almost forget that the monsoon was beginning outside and Carnaby Street was flooding.  Foregoing the additional toppings of avocado and the pineapple, we opted for cheese and bacon burgers with shared sides of sweet potato fries and coleslaw.  When the food came, the first thing I noticed was the entire slice of grilled onion sat on top of the patty.  Cooked onion is actually a bit of a pain in the arse to bite through, so we wasted no time removing it and returning only a few rings to the top of the burger.  I also did away with the enormous slice of beefsteak tomato, but this is only due to personal preference.  The burger itself was quite nice – the bread, although not my favoured brioche, was fresh and the patty well seasoned.  It was a little well-done for my taste, but was still succulent and far from being overcooked.  I would have also liked some mustard and a gherkin.  Speaking of gherkins, which is fast becoming my number one topic of conversation, I am quite fond of the large dill pickle on the side of the plate that some restaurants give you to crunch on during mouthfuls of burger.  You could have added one at Kua’Aina for an extra £1.50, but if you choose not to or forget, what you get alongside your burger is a slice of carrot.  A huge wedge of raw, peeled, bog-standard English carrot.  Claire and I, almost in unison, picked them up from our plates uttering what the f*** is that?  Seriously – A CARROT. Whilst we’re on the subject of side dishes, those were completely divided.  The sweet potato fries were crispy, well-seasoned and very moreish but the coleslaw was a little bland.  Despite these little snags, all in all it was a good lunch, it’s just too bad we had to make the modifications ourselves.  A little heap of caramelised onions, a pickle on the side and a smear of mustard and it would be great.

And as Claire rightly said:  “Lose the carrot.”

Kua 'Aina on Urbanspoon

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