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TOM PARKER BOWLES’S best cheap eats for under £20: From a London kebab joint to the finest fish and chips in the country and an ordinary-looking Chinese takeaway that is a hidden gem


He’s eaten in some of Britain’s most lavish restaurants. But from seriously good Sichuan, to the delights of Mexico and Malaysia, and the nation’s favourite Nando’s, now critic TOM PARKER BOWLES rounds up the best bargain eats across the country…

 

1. Kebab Kid, London

90 New King’s Road, London SW6

About £8 per head; takeaway only and cash only

This week, I was about to review Sushi Kanesaka, an exquisite new Japanese omakase restaurant, perched above Cut, at 45 Park Lane. Seats are limited to nine, the counter is hewn from hinoki (cypress wood), and each mouthful of superlative nigiri sushi (there are 18 to 20 joyous courses) is delivered by the eponymous Shinji Kanesaka.

My adoration for the rice alone, each grain plump, sweet and breathlessly pure, would fill this entire page. But as my friend and fellow critic Giles Coren points out, dinner costs £420 each, before you even sip the sake. And that’s without the 15 per cent service charge.

I loved it, and obviously paid my own way. But to state the bleeding obvious, quality can be found at any level. So I’ll point you, if I may, to Giles’s typically elegant review, then settle into somewhere equally exalted, if rather easier on the pocket.

That place is Kebab Kid in Parsons Green, a part of London I’d usually cross continents to avoid. But with its sheet-metal takeaway counter, surgically bright lights and, out of peak times, charming service, this small shop always draws me back.

Punters have been queuing around the block since 1976, and a sizeable part of my youth was spent beneath its scarlet awning. But this is no mere late-night booze sponge, with the usual ‘elephant leg’ of gristle-flecked mince. 

No, here, as the sign on the wall firmly points out, their raw shawarma – ‘we do not sell doner kebabs’ – are made by hand each morning, from British lamb and chicken, both marinated and seasoned with ‘different herbs’. Which means two beautifully built monoliths of meat, slowly roasted on the spit, transcendent in their mosaic’d majesty, and carved with clinical aplomb.

Pitta bread is warmed on the grill, before being stuffed with shavings of herby chicken (along with crunchy slivers of skin), red cabbage and shredded lettuce, then anointed with a squirt of lemon juice and lashings of chilli sauce. 

A medium kebab fits my hand like a cashmere glove, offering spice, succulence and succour, where the soft meets the crisp, and sharp melds with sweet. That last mouthful, the bread sodden with juice, is perhaps the finest bite of all. 

The lamb version is equally glorious, the charred shish too. All that joy, for little more than the price of a pint. This is one kebab that’s wasted on the drunk.

2. Sea Salt + Sole, Aberdeen

Station Road, Dyce, Aberdeen, AB21 7BA

About £9 per head

Sea Salt + Sole is, like most decent chippies, not much to look at: a clean, modern building on the edge of Dyce train station, just outside Aberdeen.

There’s a small ordering area, a long, glass-fronted counter, scrupulously clean, and a battalion of gleaming fryers.

The walls are plastered with various awards, the menu beaming out from overhead screens. It’s just past four, and the shop has opened.

We order a large haddock supper from smiling, immaculate staff, the fresh fillets dipped into a thin batter before being plunged into the seething oil. Battered smoked sausage, too. And a pie, from Charles McHardy Butcher in Stonehaven.

I briefly eye up the ‘puddings’ section, filled with every hue, from black to white via red and haggis. But time is short. Appetite, too. Rick Stein is cooking turbot with hollandaise sauce at the Braemar Literary Festival opening dinner in a mere two hours. We must leave some room for that.

Ten minutes later, three boxes are slid across the counter. We go outside, to the station platform, and sit on a hard plastic bench. Trains slide in and out, disgorging their punters before us. But our minds are on higher things – haddock, wearing its batter like a silk slip, crisp, golden and greaseless.

We tear it apart with our fingers, the flesh falling into thick alabaster flakes. It’s incandescently fresh, still scented with the sea and artfully steamed within that burnished shell.

Below the haddock, chips, lots of them, soaked in salt and vinegar, fat, with just the right ratio of crunch and squelch. Curry sauce is suitably sweet and viscous.

Smoked sausage, in a gossamer wisp of that batter, has snap, smoke and succulence: a saveloy with a PhD in good taste, just like that pie, its fine shortcrust case barely able to contain the mass of soft, savoury, slow-cooked beef. The bottom is slightly soggy, just as it should be.

Within four minutes, everything is gone, right down to the last crumb of batter.

This dinner is, quite simply, one of the finest things I’ve eaten for years. And every bit the equal to Rick Stein’s magnificent tranche of turbot. Albeit at about a quarter of the price.

https://seasaltandsole.co.uk/dyce/ 

3. Kopitiam, Oxford

Unit 19, Suffolk House, Summertown, Oxford, OX2 7HN

About £16 per head

You could walk past Kopitiam – a small, unassuming Malaysian café, just off North Oxford’s Banbury Road – without giving it a second glance. I’ve done so many times, assuming it was just your standard Chinese takeaway, albeit with a Malaysian burr.

Named after the coffee shops found everywhere from South Thailand and Singapore through Malaysia and Indonesia, the room is clean and utilitarian, the selection of teh tariks (pulled tea) and kopi (coffee) seemingly endless. There’s plum juice, hot or cold, and kaya toast for breakfast.

There are also two menus; the first is Chinese leaning, where sesame prawn toast, dim sum and sweet and sour pork sit alongside Malaysian classics such as five spice lor bak and beef rendang. But it’s the second, named ‘Lumch’, that you want, packed full with laksas and ho funs, hokkien mee and roti canai. 

And it’s those roti canai that always set the tone of the lunch ahead. If they’re turgid, wan and greasy, abandon all hope and all that. But these are magnificent; charred, just chewy and delicate as silk handkerchiefs. The homemade curry sauce has depth, carefully spiced warmth, and a handsome chilli heat.

Nasi lemak, that great all-day (and night) breakfast dish, mixes pandan-scented coconut rice with crisp fried anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg and a punchy sambal. Plus a dollop of mild, mellifluous chicken curry, cooked on the bone. All is as it should be, the rice and curry a study in mellow comfort. 

Then, joy of joys, Nanyang prawn noodle, which is near-identical to Penang prawn mee, one of the world’s great noodle soups. The broth is dark, rich and brooding, bracingly spicy with a deep crustacean grunt. Good prawn-head broth lies at its heart, and this is impeccable. Yellow noodles are firm, with good bite, while the prawns are plump and pert.

Singapore laksa has its chilli punch mellowed by coconut, but there’s still a robust kick, and subtle piscine depth. Flat, slippery rice noodles jostle for space with the mildly rubbery bounce (it’s a texture thing) of the fish balls. Tofu puffs do their duty, and soak up all that lovely flavour.

The fact that you can lunch here, on serious Malaysian food, for just over £15 a head, makes me very happy indeed. So forget Pret. And come to where the real flavour is.

4. Yikouchi, Birmingham

Chancer’s Café, 1418 Pershore Road, Birmingham, B30 2PH

About £15 per head

I wish I could say this was all down to me. You know, the all-knowing, ever-questing critic, his nose twitching, ear held close to the ground, ready to unearth the most choice and juicy of restaurant finds.

And that I could spin a picaresque tale of just stumbling across a rather magnificent regional Chinese restaurant, run by an English couple who, while in Beijing, were so inspired by their local Sichuan place that they decided to come home and set up shop in Birmingham’s Stirchley. And cook food that could hold its head up high in Chengdu. In a room barely large enough to swing a cleaver. But I can’t.

Because I was told about Yikouchi at Chancer’s Cafe by that fine Brummie blogger Meat & One Veg (meatandoneveg.blog), better known as Simon Carlo. He’s my first call on all things Birmingham, yet today was the first time we’ve actually met.

One slurp of a crisp, clean martini at the Grand Hotel Birmingham, which, in the words of Lawrence Durrell, flows through the system like ‘ice through the rigging’, and I know we’ll be good friends.

One more, just for luck, and into an Uber to Stirchley. And into that tiny space with James Kirk-Gould in the open kitchen, and his wife Cassie, not just running front of house, but making some serious fudge. Don’t miss Sweetmeat Inc, which you can buy after lunch. Anyway, the menu is short and sweet.

There’s a cold tiger cucumber salad, a symphony of clean crunch, cucumbers with lots of coriander and sesame oil that flits through the mouth like a cool northern breeze. Then chunks of fried chicken, crisp and hot, slathered in the sort of complex, lusciously scented chilli oil that tastes of love, experience and a whole load of Sichuan pepper. 

Enough to numb even the most lurid nuggets of our incessant industry gossip.

Simon disappears off, only to return with a cocktail (in a pouch) from the nearby bar, Couch, which we swig, joyously, between mouthfuls of fish-fragrant aubergine that sings of smoke and spice, and rich but gentle allure. And pork with long Turkish peppers, and still more chilli and the breath of the wok.

Kirk-Gould makes no claim to authenticity, yet this is seriously good cooking. Stuff to make the heart sing and belly roar. Oh, and one of the best, and best-value lunches I’ve had in months.

https://www.instagram.com/_yikouchi/?hl=en 

5. Birley Bakery, London

28-30 Cale Street, London, SW3 3QU

About £15 per head

It’s not often I find myself enamoured by the patissier’s art. And it’s even less usual to devote an entire review to such frivolities and fancies, however exalted.

My tastes are resolutely savoury, and, while I have the utmost respect for the pastry chef, their skills are best appreciated by palates rather more gilded than my own.

In short, what I know about cakes could barely fill a small profiterole. Still, when a trickle of praise turns into raging torrents of adoration, it seems only fair to look closer. Especially when the editor is a fan.

And Birley Bakery, sitting on Chelsea Green, is a beauty, no doubt about that, from the pale-yellow awning to the rich crimson walls, hand painted in the style of an old-fashioned Chinese teahouse – all swooping cranes, paper lanterns and bamboo.

The wall lights resemble huge chanterelle mushrooms; blue and white Portuguese tiles line the back kitchen, and stools are topped in handsomely colourful wicker.

Detail is everything, as you’d expect from owner Robin Birley, an old friend, and the man behind 5 Hertford Street and Oswald’s.

At the bakery’s heart are vast gleaming glass cases, overflowing with meringue tarts, apple turnovers and Paris-Brest.

There are chocolate tortes, lemon tarts and raspberry tartlets; great mountains of glossily lacquered croissants, piles of iced cinnamon brioche and towers of triple-chocolate cookies; rye bread, craggy-crusted baguettes and vast sourdough loaves.

The smell is intoxicating, in a room that shimmers and seduces – the classic Parisian patisserie, as imagined by Powell and Pressburger.

All this means precious little if the baking isn’t up to scratch. But everything I eat, on this gloriously sunny late-summer morning, lives up to its surroundings.

Pissaladière cravat – soft, sweet confit onions, scented with thyme and lavished with anchovies and olives, all wedged between brittle, golden millefeuille pastry – is rich, intense and bathed in Provençal sunshine.

Paris-Brest, the choux pastry as light as a whim, bulging with hazelnut cream and none of the tooth-aching oversweetness you find with inferior specimens.

A croissant whisks one back to the oft-imagined France of the ancien régime, where things are properly done – all light, flaky, buttery allure.

As I go, I pick up a tub of Birley bitter-chocolate ice cream. Not cheap. But there are none better. Not unlike Birley Bakery.

https://birleybakery.com/ 

6. Nandos, nationwide

About £20 per head

Nando’s, a few minutes after 6pm. There’s barely enough room to swing a pullet, let alone a hen, and every table is packed. All life is here. Nervous couples on that awkward first date, bickering families, groups of teenagers glued to their phones, and men, slightly older, egging each other on to greater feats of chilli prowess. 

There are students and OAPs, clipped accents and estuarine drawl, every colour, creed and political hue. Outside, the world howls and rages. But here at Nando’s all is well, the country united, for once, in its worship of grilled peri-peri fowl.

Staff, eternally smiling and polite, fight their way through the crowds, bearing great platters of chicken: whole, half, breast, thighs and wings. 

Breasts are flipped into buns, thrust into pittas, rolled into wraps. For the half dozen or so folk left in the country who know nothing of this ever-expanding chain, you choose the heat level of your clucker (and yes, the menu doesn’t shy away from those mother-clucking puns), from the mellow lowlands of Peri-Tamer to the rather more fiery extremes of Extra Hot. 

And, if you’re very lucky, XX Hot and Vusa too.

https://www.nandos.co.uk/ 

7. The Prince of Wales, London

202 Western Road, Southall, UB2 5ED

About £15 per head

The Prince of Wales, an unashamedly old-school boozer in the heart of London’s Southall, has little interest in the finer points of interior design. With faded tartan carpet, tattered floral fabrics and a strictly functional bar, it also has four fruit machines of various vintages, and two vast televisions, one tuned to the news, the other, thankfully, to the cricket. 

An older Trinidadian gentleman provides running commentary on the Headingley Third Test.

It’s already bustling just after 1pm on a dull Monday, a mixture of regular topers leaning on the bar and larger groups too, devouring a hearty lunch. Joyously multicultural, everyone is drinking, and all seem to be on nodding terms. 

Beer is excellent (Staropramen on tap, and a perfectly poured pint of Guinness), while service, from the sole barman, is charmingly loquacious. It’s the sort of pub where you could happily while away a few hours, and one made better still by the food.

Rather than the usual sandwiches, pies and chips, there’s an epic Indian menu. Mainly food of the Punjab, as you’d expect in Southall, heavy on the grilled meats, but a full list of curry-house classics too. We start with pani puris, those crisp, delicate pastry cups filled with brisk, sharp tamarind water. 

Excellent, and at £5 for six, serious value. Aloo tikka chat, that street-food classic, is every bit as satisfying: potatoes and shards of poppadom, tumbled with yogurt, chutney, onions and garam masala, all buried under a flurry of crisp sev noodles. At once sweet, rich, savoury and tart, it’s as thrilling as Jonny Bairstow with his mighty bat.

A mixed grill platter, which arrives spitting and sizzling, needs a table to itself, and is bursting with succulence and succour – two lavishly juicy lamb kebabs, lustily spiced, along with neon orange tandoori chicken wings which we gnaw to the bone. Lamb chops are the only letdown – dry, with the consistency of old jockstrap.

Hey ho, as Bairstow tonks his final six, and England cruise to a Test series whitewash, we dip turbo naan (it’s spicy) into tangy lamb vindaloo (old-school curry house to its chilli-powder core), order another couple of pints and settle in for the afternoon. Wimbledon’s just starting, and to leave now would seem plain rude.

https://www.princeofwalessouthall.com/ 

8. Tiwa ‘N’ Tiwa, London  

34 Peckham Hight Street, London SE15 5DP 

About £10 per head 

and 9. AsoRock, London

10 Bradbury Street, N16 8JN

About £15 per head

Nearly three decades spent in London, filling my face with all this fine city has to offer. And only a few days back did I first taste suya: grilled slices of meat, lavished with yaji, a vigorous mix of salt, spices and ground peanut crackers. 

This magnificent dish, native to Northern Nigeria but eaten everywhere, is quite simply one of the most thrilling things to pass my lips since, well, I’m not entirely sure.

Maybe that first hit of Sichuan pepper, in the dying days of the 80s, at Red Pepper off the Fulham Road. Or, further back, a Berkshire curry house, where chicken tikka masala shocked my virgin palate into raptures. Anyway, on this suitably steamy Peckham night, my Nigerian culinary education began.

It was an article in the excellent Vittles newsletter that inspired me. A piece by Helen Graves, editor of Pit magazine, where she talks of her love of suya. I text Ade, a British Nigerian and old friend, who replies saying he’s happy to give Tiwa ’N’ Tiwa a go. As long as we go on to AsoRock in Dalston for a bowl of red soup.

We park by Lidl and cross the road to a small, clean, utilitarian room where Fulham FC play on the telly and the air is thick with vigorous debate. ‘Sport and politics,’ Ade tells me. ‘Our two favourite subjects. That, and food.’ I take an iced Trophy beer from the bucket at the side, and we order. ‘Make his extra spicy.’

The beef arrives quickly, charred, chewy, slightly fatty and speckled with spice. There’s a bracing chilli blast, followed by whispers of ginger, cumin and garlic, and something else, something mysterious and intoxicating. 

The initial assault is replaced by a more languorous sort of heat, raw onion and tomato offering cool, crisp relief.

Ade prefers his suya drier, more frazzled. I just want more, but red soup is calling. So we drive north to AsoRock, where we eat chewy fried plantains. Red soup has rich depth and mild sweetness, and a subtle, fruity scotch bonnet tang. With amala on the side, made from cassava flour, grey, with the texture of putty. And a splodge of gloopy okra on top.

There’s so much more to try. This is a country whose food rivals China, India and France for depth, range and technique. I know nothing, save that I am hungry for more.

https://www.asorockfood.com/ 

10. Anissa’s Thai Kitchen, Hampshire

74 High Street, Lyndhurst, SO43 7BJ

About £20 per head

There’s much to see in the small Hampshire village of Lyndhurst. The grave of Alice Liddell, inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. St Michael’s and All Angels church, with stained-glass windows by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. And, for those of a less Victorian bent, two vast Ferrari showrooms.

But for me, its greatest lure, aside from the New Forest and its nibbling ponies, is Anissa’s Thai Kitchen. For this is no average pad Thai palace; rather, a joyous blast of true regional cooking, the country sibling to London’s peerless 101 Thai Kitchen, and an entirely fortuitous find.

Wandering down the high street I glance, as always, at the restaurant menus. Anissa’s not only catches my eye, it makes my heart hammer with fish sauce-soaked delight. Nueau dad dieaw! Isaan grilled chicken! I book on the spot. Only later do I find out the London connection.

Dinner is, as expected, magnificent. The great Auntie Bee, doyenne of Southern-style succour, is in the kitchen tonight. Which means that all is well in the world. We drink icy Chang beer, nibbling brittle shards of crisp chicken skin. And chewing that nueau dad dieaw – fried, dried, seasoned beef, dragged through sriracha sauce. The evening is close, heavy and humid.

And for a moment I could be back in one of those late night Bangkok Isaan bars, where beer is sold by the metre, and a continuous flow of snacks assaults the tongue with salty, spicy aplomb.

Kua gling moo, made with good minced pork, is dry fried and beautifully brutal, the paste fresh pounded, the chilli heat, scented with lime leaf and lemongrass, rolling across the tongue in fiery waves. Hot and sour prawn curry is suitably so, with fishy, fetid depth, the bamboo shoot giving the dish that idiosyncratic tang. 

When heat threatens to overwhelm, there’s always a handful of sticky rice and, equally effective, a mouthful of lacy, puffy, oily Thai omelette.

Som tum salad is crunchy, pert and punchy, rich with chewy dried shrimp, and a lime-drenched vim. And poussin, honey and herb marinated, grilled then hewn into quarters. Dunked into a sweet, sharp jaew dipping sauce, we gnaw the chicken until the bones are clean. 

Service is as lovely as the food, and we skip out into the soft, sweaty Hampshire dusk, our tongues a-throb, our spirits infused with pure Siamese glee.

https://www.anissasthaikitchen.uk/ 

11. Dishoom, London

4 Derry Street, London W8 5SE

About £20 per head

It’s just after seven on a sultry Friday night. And sitting in the softly lit cool of Dishoom, with its art deco curves and artfully aged aquamarine leather banquettes, the past four months seem a long way off.

Sure, the staff are clad in masks, tables removed and hand sanitiser now as much a part of the scenery as salt and pepper. But it feels how restaurants should feel. Or perhaps just how we hoped they would be once more.

There’s a happy hubbub of pure, unfiltered hospitality, once so normal, now somehow exotic. Of people, friends, lovers, colleagues, family, gathered in a public place to eat food, cooked by someone else and delivered to your table by a stranger. In short, the eternal appeal of a great restaurant. 

And Dishoom is one of the best: a small group that has grown slowly, based upon the old Irani cafés of Bombay, serving up a robustly spiced remembrance of things past.

Yet this is no romanticised paean to a fading world, rather modern, pan-Indian cookery, adapted to the cosmopolitan appetites of a modern British city. Chilli chicken, an Indo-Chinese dish, is gloriously sticky, tumbled in a soy-soaked, chilli-packed, spring onion-studded sauce, as thick as jam.

Keema pau is a comfort classic, the minced lamb oily in all the right ways, piled into buttery toasted rolls, and eaten in three joyous bites. The sort of dish that envelops the senses in a warm embrace and refuses to let go. House black daal is equally hearty, lustily spiced and swimming in butter and cream. I’d happily drown in its dark depths.

Chicken ruby is a glorious hybrid of butter chicken and something more intense, with a fistful of fresh fenugreek leaves. There’s skill on the grill too. Lamb chops, marinated in lime, ginger and garlic, battered thin, are charred and ‘untrimmed for juiciness’, so the fat is every bit as important as the flesh. 

Then bread, great folded handkerchiefs of thinly stretched roti with which to mop up every last smudge of sauce. And naan, buttery, just crisp, sprinkled with garlic and delight.

It’s a five-napkin feast. Dishoom is not only a place where the food thrills (they also understand the concerns of post-lockdown eating out), but one that distils the very spirit of good cheer. This is what we’ve missed. This is what we love. This is why we eat out.

https://www.dishoom.com/kensington/ 

12. Ariana II, London

241 Kilburn High Road, London, NW6 7JN

About £18 per head

It’s not often you find an offshoot of a Manhattan restaurant on Kilburn High Road. But Ariana II, not so much a sequel as transatlantic sibling, has been on this sootily urban Northwest London thoroughfare for over a decade. And you wouldn’t want it anywhere else.

Because this is as much local hero as it is Afghani stalwart, the sort of place that feeds expats, locals and novices (including me) with equal delight. I’m here on the recommendation of Hamid, a charming Afghani taxi driver, who hollered its praises. While giving me a briefly incisive lesson on the country’s geography: the crossroads of East and West, the heart of the ancient Silk Route, a place where all merge, meld and mingle. 

And topography: all fierce deserts, soaring, snow-capped peaks, lush, fertile plains and valleys. What the guidebooks would coyly call ‘a land of contrasts and extremes’. Add in invaders, from Macedonians and Mongols to Persians and British, plus a stirring melange of ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbek and many more), and you have one hell of a place to eat.

Inside, the lights are bright, the tables rammed, and the atmosphere thick enough to smear on fresh baked bread. Service is brisk but warm, and we leave ordering to our waitress. ‘Aushak,’ she smiles, putting down a huge plate of dumplings, stuffed with spiced leeks and lavished with a minced lamb sauce, heavy on the cumin, with chickpeas and lashings of yogurt. The pastry is delicate, the flavours subtle and elegant. 

My endless quest for new forms of dumpling has found a new star.

Hot, fluffy naan arrives with baudinjan buranee, a sort of soft aubergine mush with a hint of chilli and a pert acidity. Its bland appearance belies an altogether more thrilling appeal, while kadoo buranee, vivid orange, sees mashed pumpkin crisscrossed with more fresh yogurt. There’s lightness and litheness to both dishes, a subtle, delicate spicing that quietly thrills.

Kabuli palaw is basmati at its best, each glistening, luscious grain rolling lasciviously across the tongue. Studded with almonds, pistachios, raisins and shredded carrot, it’s at once softly Moghul and absolutely Afghanistan. And every bit the equal of the lamb: a soft, slow-cooked shank, then charred, juicy cubes. 

Another night, another revelation. Kabul comes to Kilburn. And I learn a little bit more.

https://ariana2.uk/ 

13. Putera Puteri, London

179 Queensway, London, W2 5HL

About £15 per head

You could pass Putera Puteri, a small Malaysian restaurant on the fringes of London’s Bayswater, with barely a second glance. I’ve done it myself, hundreds of times before. Because for years, I had an office around the corner, and would spend lunchtimes in total thrall to my gut, seeking out Singaporean cafés (Kiasu, RIP), serious Thai (Tawana, RIP), and proper Penang hokkien mee (C&R, RIP). Somehow, though, I missed this gem.

And it took a recent article in the ever-excellent Vittles (subscribe at vittles.substack.com) to point me in the right direction. Towards their wa tan hor, a comforting Cantonese noodle dish of such beautiful, blessed blandness, that for a short moment, as we sit, sucking and chewing, all seems well in the world.

It’s a symphony of soft, with a joyously slithery, silken texture; slices of spongy fish ball, and prawns, and carefully scored squid, and a tangle of flat, brown noodles, all in a wobbling, egg-based sauce. 

You could come for this alone, but you would be mad to miss the curry puffs, three golden crescents of the flakiest, most delicate pastry, stuffed with curried chicken and potato. Or roti canai, the bread-like folded silk, charred in all the right places, and dunked into a thin, fiery sour chicken curry sauce.

The room is as brightly lit as an operating theatre, and the loo is that public place over the road. You bring your own booze and sip from plastic cups, as you munch deep-fried chicken satay made from minced flesh, like a kofta. A chunky peanut sauce is rich and heavy on the oil. I eat it by the spoonful.

There’s kangkung belacan, stir-fried morning glory tossed in soy sauce, salty as sin, throbbing with shrimp paste and chillies. And kari laksa with a broth that has deep coconut sweetness, a hint of sour, a good whack of heat and the sort of depth you can get lost in. 

The noodles have bounce and bite, while more fish balls and prawns jostle with beansprouts and scraps of chicken. One of the charming owners catches me slurping it from the bowl. ‘It’s OK,’ she smiles. ‘Everyone does it.’

By now, my jacket is splattered with soup, my lips slick with oil and my heart pumping with sambal-fuelled glee. I have found my happy place.

https://www.puteraputeri.co.uk/ 

14. Sonny Stores, Bristol

47 Raleigh Road, Bristol, BS3 1QS

About £20 per head

Sonny Stores is an Italian restaurant on the site of an old off-licence in Bristol’s Southville. We sit outside, as is the way these days, at a small table that struggles to fit the seemingly endless cavalcade of plates – this being the sort of place where you really have to order everything. 

Because the food here is River Café quality, at almost local café prices. Which makes sense as chef and co-proprietor Pegs Quinn worked at that peerless West London institution for four years, before moving down to Bristol and shaking the pans at the doubly adored Pasta Ripiena and Bianchis.

We start with a soft sliver of farinata, that Sicilian chickpea pancake, anointed with grassy young olive oil, then home-cured Cantabrian anchovies, sweet and subtle, and heavy on the oregano. 

There’s burrata, fresh and gloriously lactic, served on chargrilled, garlic-laden toast, and a crisp, clean little gem salad, snowy with grated parmesan, studded with almonds, and heady with fresh mint.

Then the potato bread, dear god, that bread. ‘Like pommes Anna on toast,’ sighs my friend Mark, a veteran eater and not easily impressed. Thin slices of potato, piled high on bread, then drizzled with habanero-infused honey, and topped with crisp slices of pancetta. 

The honey packs a serious punch, and brings together the pork and potato in blissful unity. The flavours are big but never brash. Raw wisps of deliriously fresh seabass are doused in olive oil, gently seasoned, and finished with a squeeze of lemon. The very essence of piscine simplicity.

Sweetbreads, gently spongy, come with fresh peas and a marsala sauce of such profound depth and elegance you want to lick the plate clean. But even the famously easy-going Bristol might balk at such a sight, so I make do with my fingers. 

Fresh tagliarini is as delicate and joyous as a Puccini aria, each strand coated with a creamy parmesan emulsion, and the whole dish studded with asparagus. And because we hadn’t ordered quite enough food, a margherita pizza, all puffy, blistered cornicione, thin crust, puddles of mozzarella and a tart tomato sauce. 

Oh, and finally, a tiramisu, light as a cumulus cloud. Beautiful food, charming service and incredible value. Yet another Bristol belter.

https://www.sonnystores.com/ 

15. KungFu Kitchen, Berkshire

80 Christchurch Road, Reading, RG2 7AZ

About £20 per head

It would be easy to walk past KungFu Kitchen with barely a second glance. Sitting in an unremarkable row of shops near Reading University, between a Greggs and a student estate agent, it still resembles the café it once was. There’s a blackboard flogging lattes and cappuccinos, and an epic menu mixing full English breakfast with chips, chicken nuggets and egg fried rice.

But look closer, and you’ll find this is no run-of-the-mill regional takeaway. Hell no. Not so much lemon chicken as stir-fried lamb’s tripe with coriander and Dongpo-style pig shoulder.

 ‘This is proper Chinese, darling,’ says Joanna, the co-owner, along with her English husband Steven. She’s charmingly loquacious, a native of Shandong in China, as is her chef.

I can’t take credit for finding it. Rave Twitter reviews from Clay’s Hyderabadi (another Reading classic, yet to reopen) pointed me in the right direction, which led me to blogger @ediblereading’s glowing report. Which shows that among the sulphurous effluence of social media, there are still golden nuggets to be found.

Anyway, back to KungFu, and a magnificent starter of cold Sichuan beef. The homemade oil is gloriously fragrant and numbing, the very essence of ma la, with a slow-building burn, and a long, languorous finish. Thinly sliced meat blends soft chew with a wonderfully gelatinous crunch.

Chicken gizzards, cut into small pieces and stir fried in a salty, richly complex sauce studded with Chinese chives, coriander stalks and bullet chillies, have a similar cartilaginous crunch. The heat is strident, but never overwhelming, the whole dish a triumphant symphony of texture and big, bold flavour. 

There’s barbecue lamb, a dish from the north, soft and gently fatty, awash in fresh roasted cumin and more of those pert chives. The sauce, knowingly spiced with a hint of sweetness, clings tenaciously to each nugget of flesh.

We savour chewy homemade dan dan noodles, and attack a vast pile of local crayfish, drenched in a seething lake of crimson ire, until the table before us is covered with brutal crustacean carnage. Hand-chopped potatoes, the starch scrupulously washed away, come doused in sharp vinegar, a welcome respite from the heat.

This is a 30 (authentically thin and useless)-napkin lunch. We leave, lips numb and tongues aglow, our shirts splattered with oil, our bellies filled with joy.

https://kungfureading.co.uk/ 

16. A la Mexicana, West Midlands

175 Sandon Road, Bearwood, Smethwick B66 4AB

About £15 per head

Jonathan Gold, the late and inarguably great restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, once wrote that ‘the best choice is always the restaurant 15 minutes further than you are willing to go.’ 

As ever, he was right. Because A la Mexicana is a good hike for most Brummies, let alone this train-tied Londoner, situated in Bearwood, a western suburb that isn’t even technically part of Birmingham. But inspired by a rave review from the ever-reliable Meat and One Veg blog, my only real concern was how quickly I could be there for lunch.

A la Mexicana is not particularly smart, being little more than a small room – with an open kitchen and freestanding drinks fridge – wedged between large electrical showrooms, on an unlovely stretch of Midlands A-road. What it is, though, is good. Very good indeed.    

A television sits in one corner, blaring out Mexican travel shows, while bright papel picado (punched-paper banners) flutter from the ceiling. José Galindez, warm and gently garrulous, runs front of house while his wife, Patricia, cooks. At the moment, it’s BYO. But anywhere with ice-cold bottles of Mandarin Jarritos is fine by me.

Tortillas are made fresh each day. As are the salsas, five in total, ranging from mild, chunky pico de gallo through rich, smoky chipotle to a fierce little habañero number that melds fruit with fire. 

Guacamole is creamily luscious and sharp with lime. I eat chilaquiles – fresh fried tortilla chips slathered in a piquant tomato sauce, lavished with fresh cheese, sour cream and slim shards of radish. Two immaculately fried eggs sit on top. The art lies in that contrast between soggy and crisp, sharp and sweet. All bound together in the yolk’s concupiscent embrace.

Tacos al pastor – the pork crisp, charred and stained red with achiote – bring a small, greedy tear to my eye. Tiny chunks of pineapple add acidity, while raw onions provide essential crunch. Carnitas tacos are equally fine, soft strands of good pig, slow cooked in lard. The tortillas themselves, small and just chewy, are scented with masa and the Mexican street. 

All wear as many salsas as I can pile on, and dribble as they’re devoured.

A la Mexicana is the sort of home-style, family-owned place you’ll find all over Mexico. But to have somewhere this wonderful, in a distant Birmingham suburb, is nothing short of miraculous. Viva Mexico. Viva Bearwood. And viva la familia Galindez.

https://www.instagram.com/alamexicana.birmingham/?hl=en 

17. The White Rabbit, Oxford

21 Friars Entry, Oxford, OX1 2BY

About £12 per head

Wilding seems like a fine place to eat on the most filthy of north Oxford days, all dreich gloom and bitter, driving rain. There’s a serious wine shop as you walk in and, further on, booths leading to a huge terrace at the back. We arrive, my daughter and me, drenched, starved and soaked to the bone. 

Pizzas await, and trout tartare, and burgers, carpaccio and steak.

But there’s a problem. Thanks to the staff crisis that is crippling the entire hospitality industry, their chef is on a much-needed break. So would we mind awfully waiting half an hour before he gets back. 

Of course, we say, and settle into our booth, nibbling on fat, briny olives and smoked almonds. I glug a cracking glass of Greek white. This place looks very good indeed. Thirty minutes later, chef is back. But alas, no pizza. They simply haven’t got the staff.

The problem is, I had promised Lola pizza. So it is with heavy heart that we move on, with huge apologies from the very kindest front of house. They refuse to let me pay for the drinks. I will be back.

In the meantime, we step out into the deluge and trudge to The White Rabbit, just off Gloucester Green. It’s little more than a pub, with loud music, and wobbly tables, but it’s warm and welcoming, and they serve good beer. Pizzas too. 

About 30 different varieties, plenty enough to send the purists mad. No Neapolitan-style pizzaiolos here, or authentic wood-fired ovens. And all the better for it.

We order at the bar, as The Who wail in the background, and eat fluffy doughballs dunked in garlic butter, and chew decent salami, with pickles, and revel in being out of the cold. Next door, two history dons argue the finer points of the Second World War, while a group of girls prepare for a Saturday night out.

Pizzas, ostensibly Roman style, are generous, with a base that sits between the crisp and chewy, and decently puffed-up crust. Tomato sauce is fresh and sharp, the mozzarella sitting in molten puddles. 

My Diavola is piled high with pepperoni, peppers and a good handful of saltily intense anchovies. Lola keeps it pure, just a Margarita. Better than Pizza Express, she says. Better than The Oak in Shepherds Bush, too. We like this place very much. Outside, the rain hammers down. I order another pint.

https://www.whiterabbitoxford.co.uk/ 

18. Tanvan, London

17 The Green, London, W5 5DA

About £20 per head

Tanvan, a newish Vietnamese restaurant in a freshly spruced-up part of Ealing, is the sort of family-run place that makes me very happy indeed. Owned by three sisters, and named after their grandparents, the kitchen is run by their mother.

Family photographs cover the wall, 1960s Vietnamese soul-jazz trills from the speakers, and our waitress has a charm and easy confidence that seem a physical expression of the restaurant’s succour-soaked soul.

All the classics are there. 

Prawn summer rolls filled with crunch, zing and vitality, the plump crustaceans pressed up against the soft rice paper like kids’ noses at a sweetshop window. Bo la lot are dark and sticky, shards of spiced pork and beef wrapped in a betel leaf shawl. A lively chilli oil sits on the side, alongside the usual sriracha sauce, to be splashed and squirted with lusty aplomb.

We drink cold Saigon beer, and bite into ban mi, the Vietnamese baguette, a perfect combination of crisp crust and airy crumb interior, the filling an ode to pig. Pâté, spread thick, then char siu pork, pork floss and slices of cinnamon-scented pork mortadella. Pickles, chillies and fistfuls of herbs keep the swine in check.

More pork with the bun cha Hanoi, bouncy meatballs in a vinegary, lightly spiced broth, and chewy pork belly sitting on a vast tangle of fresh noodles, covered with crushed peanuts and more fresh herbs and pickles. 

Texture here is every bit as important as taste. And there’s a glorious freshness to the cooking, all zest, fragrance and bite, things that separate good Vietnamese from the merely average. Then pho. Obviously. 

‘Go for the Hanoi garlicky,’ says our lovely waitress. ‘I just had it for my lunch. It’s great.’ And it is. The broth has a deep savoury depth, tasting of knowledge, nostalgia and a long, slow simmer. Surely a whack of MSG too, that wonder ingredient, so unfairly maligned.

We add lime juice, herbs, beansprouts, chilli oil and sriracha. You customise it to suit your taste, and that’s part of its allure. No two bowls are the same. 

The beef has a gentle garlicky tang, the noodles just the right amount of chew. We drink the last drops straight from the bowl. Next door, a group of French work colleagues dig into pork belly stew. ‘C’est bon,’ murmurs one. The others nod. ‘Oui, c’est bon.’

https://www.tanvan1951.com/ 

19. JG Melon, New York

1291 3rd Avenue, New York, 10021

About £12 per head

JG Melon, with its faded, red neon sign, battered wooden bar and clanking, resolutely analogue till, feels like a relic of a New York long past. One that no longer exists, or perhaps never did. The lights are always dark-rum dim, no matter what time of day or night, while service – from men in ties, white shirts and aprons – moves between the cheerily loquacious. And the glum and downright gruff.

Despite opening in 1972, this could be an Upper East Side joint straight from the pages of Damon Runyon, where daytime topers with wise guy nicknames hunch over hard liquor and cold beer. 

Ok, so my immediate neighbours are a lantern -jawed preppy, glued to his Insta feed. And ‘Irish Joe’, a lugubrious looking regular, swigging another Bud Lite. It’s four in the afternoon, and I bag the last spot at the bar.

To my left, above my head, a television plays live baseball. The walls are covered in prints, pictures, etches and sketches of melons in their every form. While behind me is the kitchen, small and enrobed in a pall of grey smoke. It’s here where the real magic happens. 

Sure, the martinis are ice cold and generous, but not so generous they grow warm before the last sip. These barmen know their stuff.

But JG Melon is all about the burger. The whole room has a constant soundtrack of sizzle, loud enough to drown out muttered asides, as beef patty hits searing grill. Cheeseburger, rare, that’s it. 

There may be other things on the menu, but I’ve never bothered to ask. Forget Wagyu or dry ageing, artisan cheese, or ‘secret’ burger sauce – just adding bacon is positively baroque.

Arriving in 4 minutes flat, with nothing save a few slices of red onion, and a handful of pert pickles, the burger wears a melted slice of processed American cheese. Add ketchup and Grey Poupon to taste. 

And it’s everything a burger should be, greasy but not cloying, with frazzled edges and soft pink centre, all enclosed in a soft, toasted bun that valiantly struggles to contain the juices within. That bun is destined to fail, but move fast, and this one-handed masterpiece can be devoured in five joyous bites. 

It may not be the best burger in town, but it’s definitely my favourite. I wipe my hands, and head for the door, while Irish Joe sinks another beer.

https://jgmelon-nyc.com/ 

20. Tarmachan Café, Aberdeenshire

Just off the A93, Crathie, Aberdeenshire, AB35 5UL

About £15 per head

It sits just off the main Ballater road, a mere caber’s toss from Crathie church, barely bigger than a crofter’s hut. OK, so the Tàrmachan Cafe is hardly a tumbledown hovel, rather a sleek, single-storey wooden building, melding elegantly into the Cairngorm hills, designed by architects who have the office next door.

There’s a clean, modern simplicity to the place, from the font of the ‘CAFE’ sign outside, to the discreetly blonde wooden tables, gleaming concrete floor and pristine white walls. 

You can get the excellent Williams & Johnson coffee to take away, along with serious homemade cakes, and a mighty venison, apple and fennel sausage roll. Pies come from nearby Wark Farm: small, handheld and heavenly. 

They change according to the seasons, but are consistent in their brilliance. Today, it’s lamb and apple, enclosed in that peerless pastry tasting of rolling hills, heather-covered moors and a life very well lived.

If you are going to sit down – and I strongly recommend you do – there’s a daily stew and soup, chalked up on the blackboard. Ingredients are mainly local, yet this is never rammed down your maw. Flavour always comes first. 

We eat a rich, tomatoey lentil stew, gently spiced with harissa and dotted with blobs of wild garlic pesto. Simple, but deeply satisfying. A sharp, bright ginger and lime coleslaw provides merry crunch.

Toasted cheese sandwiches, made with their own sourdough bread, are barely able to contain molten rivers of Connage Highland, which ooze from thin, crisp, burnished crusts. 

To make things better still, there’s a subtle layer of kimchi, adding a quiet, vinegary heat that not only tempers, but cossets, soothes and flatters all that delectable dairy excess. 

Oh, Great Chieftain o’ the Sandwid’ race! It’s the sort of dish that could make an Englishman climb astride the table, fork held triumphantly aloft, roaring ‘they may take our lives… but they’ll NEVER take our freedom.’ This, though, is a civilised sort of place. And they’re all out of woad.

Tàrmachan Cafe is owned by Caitlin Donald, from just down the road in Kincardine O’Neil. And her husband, Tom Checkley, from, well, England. But they make a mighty pair. Not so much the Auld Enemy as the blessed union, with food to match the glorious Highland setting. If only all cafes were this good.

https://tarmachancafe.com/ 

21. Khun Pakin Thai, London

The Salutation & Thai Restaurant, 154 King Street, London, W6 0QU

About £20 per head

‘How hot do you want your som tum?’ asks the waitress with a smile. I’m standing by the counter of Khun Pakin Thai, a small and unassuming Thai concession tucked away in the corner of The Salutation pub, on King Street, West London. ‘Thai hot,’ I reply with a macho growl. Just in case she’s mistaken me for some pale, posh Englishman with a pathetically vainglorious view of his capsaicin capacity. She nods and grins. ‘So five chillies level? That’s pretty hot.’

‘Pretty hot’, it turns out, is an early contender for understatement of the year. 

It’s a glorious som tum pu plara, no doubt about that, dark as stagnant pond water, the crisp, shredded green papaya dressed in a mixture of sharp lime juice, sour tamarind and pla ra – moody, funkily fermented fish sauce. 

There are tiny pickled crab, ready to crunch and suck, and the soft base note of palm sugar. And chilli, lots of it, fresh and dried, enough to halt a rampaging elephant. A distant rumble of heat first, which gradually builds into a terrifying crescendo, a furious inferno that rolls down the throat in great burning waves.

Within seconds, speaking becomes impossible, my tongue transformed into a useless lump of gristle. My vision blurs and head turns giddy, as lights become more vivid, sounds more acute. Even thinking hurts. But this is pain of the most exquisite kind, as the som tum is sensationally good. And I just can’t help going back for more.

Kung chae nam pla, raw prawns buried under mint leaves and thin slices of raw garlic, has a brisk rather than brutal heat, the flavours fresh, clean and elegantly balanced. Just like the pork larb, zinging vitality with slivers of red onion and a tangle of fresh herbs.

Not everything is about the chilli. Mu ping, chewy, charred pork skewers, remind me of the sticky Chiang Mai nights, while kho mu yang, grilled pork neck, has tender charm, and a piquant dipping sauce. Khun Pakin was recommended by the lovely people at Jin Da, just around the corner. 

Skip past the standard menu, they said, and get stuck into ‘Esarn Thai Originals’. Wise advice, and there’s so much more to try. This now makes it three serious regional Thai places, mere metres apart. When it comes to good value, pretty exceptional restaurants, King Street can do battle with the best.

https://www.salutationhammersmith.co.uk/ 

22. The Zaika Inn, Wiltshire

About £20 per head

7 London Road, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 1PH

Sometimes, only a curry house will do. A place where the poppadoms are as crisp as the pints are cold and the vindaloo so fierce it could strip paint from the wall. I want stainless-steel thali plates filled with oversweet mango chutney, lurid raita and chopped raw onions that make the eyes water. 

 And delectably inauthentic dishes, like chicken tikka masala and the blessed balti – almost entirely unknown back home, but revered and relished over here.

Because this is very much British Indian cooking (as opposed to Anglo Indian, a rather different beast), Indian food adapted for timid national palates and traditionally cooked, for the most part, by Bangladeshi immigrants. Who, after the Second World War, bought up bombed-out chippies and derelict cafés, working every hour to provide post-pub succour to the ravenous masses.

I love the curry-house menu almost as much as I love regional Indian food. Yes, the former is mainly built around base gravies, and the spicing is often brutishly unsubtle. 

But here at The Zaika Inn in Marlborough, the cooking is a cut above the norm. Take the tarka dal, tempered with fragrant cumin and coriander-seed tadka, both a technique and infused oil. 

Dal makhani is a rather richer affair, heavy on the butter and cream. I’ve always loved dal but have recently become obsessed after reading Mallika Basu’s fine piece on the subject (subscribe at morethancurry.substack.com).

That’s one of the problems with getting older, and falling still further down the culinary rabbit hole – the more I learn, the less I realise I know. Hey ho. Still, my Mastermind specialist subject could well be the curry-house vindaloo. 

And here, a bold vinegar kick moves things closer to its Portuguese/Keralan roots. The chilli-powder heat, though, is curry house to its core, rendering speech temporarily impossible. Just as it should.

Butter chicken is gently sweet and soothingly unsubtle, almost Mughal in its lavish, dairy-drenched majesty. They know how to use a tandoor too, the chicken wearing both crisp crust and deep char, while there’s a precision, an understanding of spice, to their vegetable dishes that make the flavours sing. 

You’ll even find a few regional classics, decently done. As ever, we order too much. But that’s part of the curry-house joy. Last night’s excess means next morning’s delight.

https://zaikainn.co.uk/ 

 





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