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Street eats: London's amazing food cart culture
Once reviled as the city of jellied eels and whelks, London is now a top spot for grazing on the hoof
Read all about it. It’s 2012 and London is awash with astounding street food -- no kidding.
The British capital finally has a mobile food culture worthy of the name and we've been on the trail of seven of the very best.
The stalls and vans featured below are essential stops for any self-respecting modern glutton, but how did a city once known only for fog, finance and bad seafood become a gourmet paradise?
Sustainable, cheap, tasty
Kelly Parsons, of restaurant network Ethical Eats, thinks street-food caterers -- with their focus on quality ingredients but lower overheads -- have raised the bar in terms of what you can eat affordably in the capital.
“Mobile caterers buy ingredients in a more flexible way, so they are in a great position to support local producers, to design menus to reflect what’s in season and generally to take a more sustainable approach,” says the ethical foodie.
Parsons also cites the example of Tongue n’ Cheek, one of our current favorites, a street-food stall that focuses on showing how tasty forgotten cuts like, well, tongue, cheek and heart can be.
New flavors, cheap, sustainable, organic, locally sourced and way tastier than many of the showy (and costly) Michelin-starred haunts in West One. It’s not a hard sell.
In fact, the only real question must surely be: what did Londoners eat before the street-food revolution?
That's another issue, of course, but right now, they sure seem to be chowing down on a lot of Mexican food, in particular. Which leads us nicely to our first pick ...
Tacos, burritos: Luardo’s
Street food has become popular for one blindingly obvious reason, according to Luardo’s founder Simon Luard -- because the food on offer is of such a high standard.
“Four years ago this wasn't the case, but in the last two or three years a new wave of traders has come through and some of the food they're making is incredible,” he says.
“Also, it's fun and there's a buzz to it. You go down a busy lunchtime food market and it must feel like such a contrast to the office environment. People need this!”
And sales suggest east London’s office drones cannot get enough freshly made, quality burritos -- prices start from under £5 (US$8.15).
Luardo’s secret? Boring, old-fashioned hard work.
“We made our name selling burritos at Whitecross Street Market,” says Luard. “We get down there at 7 a.m. and make everything fresh that day.
“Plus we constantly work on making the food taste better.
“We've got customers who have had our food two or three times a week for the last five years, which is pretty ridiculous!”
Meatballs: The Bowler
“Getting food on the streets from vans and pop-up stalls has been on the rise,” says The Bowler’s Jez Felwick.
“That’s because Londoners are seeing passionate people working hard to get quality food out there.
“No longer do you have to sit down and pay £10-£15 for a main course. It's now possible get as good, if not better food, for half the price and meet the people making it,” he says.
“The selection on offer at some of the markets also means you can try a few different things on a single evening.
“I'm thrilled people like my balls. I like to think it's good honest food, simple in concept, quality in its ingredients and a comforting meal.
“I put a lot of time into making the sauces and meatballs and I think people can taste the effort. Obviously, everyone loves to stroke a grassy van too.” Prices start at £2 per meatball.
The Bowler, eat.st, Kings Boulevard, London N1C; check the blog for schedule; www.thebowler.info
The first Freebird opened in Exmouth market back in January 2007. The burrito-rolling kings of Farringdon now have four pop-up shops around London with prices from around £5.
“London has seen a huge Mexican food explosion since 2008,” says Freebird founder James Howland.
“When we started trading in 2007, we were just the second burrito stall in London.”
“We love what we do and we didn’t want to sell out to corporate backers,” he says.
“We are, in fact, the only street trader that has also made it to the high street [at 24 Liverpool Street, EC2M 7PD, opposite Liverpool Street Station] and, unlike corporate-backed shops like Tortilla, Chipotle, Chilango and others, we have grown organically without any outside financing.”
Freebird, stalls on Goodge Street, Rupert Street and Exmouth Market; opening hours vary; www.freebirdburritos.com
Burritos, tacos: Wahaca’s Mexican Street Kitchen
In a perfect circle of postmodern food industry trends, Thomasina Miers won reality-TV show “MasterChef” in 2005, became one of the United Kingdom’s most feted celebrity chefs and brought Mexican street food to a lavish west-end restaurant setting.
She then bought an old 1950s Citroen HY van to serve up freshly cooked burritos and tacos to the good people of London’s Southbank. Prices start at under £4.
“We love what’s happening with street food in London at the moment,” says Wahaca’s marketing manager, Oli Ingham.
“It’s opening us up to a wild variety of different cuisines, served in brilliantly creative ways.
“There’s nowhere for poor-quality dishes to hide -- if your offering is no good, people can see that straight away.”
Wahaca has two Mexican Street Kitchens:
An airstream trailer parked up under the trees in Canada Square Park, London E14 5FW; open from 11.30 a.m.-2 p.m. on weekdays and evenings when it’s sunny.
Also, a 1950s Citroen HY van parked alongside the river next to Waterloo Bridge, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX -- open from 12 p.m.-11 p.m. every day; www.wahaca.co.uk
Traditional British: Eat My Pies
Restaurant-quality food at a fantastic price, made by people who care dearly about what they do.
This, for Eat My Pies chef Andy Bates, is what street food is all about.
“You just can’t beat that! You get to deal directly with the people who cook the food, it’s fresh and it doesn’t get left standing out on a plate to go cold until someone decides to pick it up,” he says.
“I really believe that we have the best street food in the world, here in London.
“There are some forgotten British classics that I feel so passionately about. Pork Pies, Scotch Eggs, Sticky Toffee Pudding, the list goes on.” Prices from £3.
Paella: Jamon Jamon
"I have no idea why street food is suddenly so popular,” admits Nick Friedman, founder of Spanish specialist Jamon Jamon.
“I've been doing it for eight years and it's now become flavor of the month,” he says, definitely referring to his excellent paella (from £5).
“It's maybe something to do with social media, helping to find London's great street food and creating a buzz about it. All the food's great, but only now is it suddenly getting more press.”
Friedman particularly loves the fact that Londoners are now more than happy to wait for fresh food to be prepared and cooked.
“From empty pan to finished dish,” as he describes it.
Jamon Jamon, Stall 89, Portobello Market; open Saturday 11:45 a.m.-6 p.m.
Korean fast food: Kimchi Cult
"I think that one of the reasons street food has become so popular in recent years is the social aspect,” says Korean fast-food vendor and Kimchi Cult owner, Danny O’Sullivan.
“One of things I like most about eating and serving street food is the connection you get between customer and trader.
“I also really enjoy it when complete strangers strike up conversations while eating around my stall; sharing food is a great way of breaking down barriers.”
“Our kimchi is probably the reason people keep coming back,” he says.
“Kimchi is quite a niche product and it can be hard to find outside the handful of Korean shops and restaurants in the capital.
“All of ours is handmade with fresh ingredients weekly, then carefully stored and fermented for up to two weeks.
“By the time it hits a burger or torta it is the perfect mix of tangy, spicy and salty.”
Sounds a bit like a snapshot of the London street-food scene, if you ask us. Prices start at £5.
Kimchi Cult, eat.st, Kings Boulevard, London N1C; open Thursday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Also, Street Feast Dalston, Opposite Dalston Junction Station; open Friday 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Chatsworth Road Market; open Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; www.kimchicult.com