Being a person who eats professionally is… weird. Sometimes I eat triple lunches and double dinners and order some wings for the road. Other times it’s straight endurance: one roti, followed by another roti, finished with… more roti. All washed down with four Rennies and a decision on which roti reigns supreme. Then for the days in between: nothing. For me, the name of this game is eat fast, or just fast - and all of it is for the sake of a stranger’s future decision making (cc: Nobel Prize). But often what I really want is one perfectly satisfying meal for under £10. So when you’re feeling similarly, try one of my favourite meals I’ve eaten recently.
Paigu fun, £10.55
Is going 55p over the self-enforced budget I gave myself a cop out? Yes. Should you care? Well, I don’t think so. The reason being is that once you’ve sat down at Chew Fun, poured their electric chilli oil over your noodles, and happily slurped face down into your bowl, then you’ll understand why there should always be a little flex. The spot in between Whitechapel and Spitalfields is a specialist in Guilin fun - a rice noodle that’s eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the southern Chinese city. I opted for noodles with broth as it’s mid-August and I’ve been stinkingly ill, because England, and both the braised niurou fun (beef shin) and paigu fun (pork rib) toppings were the fiery comfort I needed.
Sloppy joe, £9
The sandwich is undoubtedly my favourite food vehicle (closely followed by the stick and then hands), so more often than not I find myself eating some variation of bread and filling. I had a not-so-sneaking suspicion that I’d probably get on with Bodega Rita’s. Their old spot in Coal Drops wasn’t the best location, geography-wise, but I did have the best egg mayo sandwich of my life there. Any egg sandwich I think about years later is a serious egg sandwich. Anyway, I’m happy to report that both both their chopped beef and sloppy joe are complete and utter messes. The kind of sandwiches that keep the lemon wipe empire gleamingly rich.
Fried turnip cake with XO sauce, £5.10
You only need to look at what comes out of the fridges of university halls or, worse, the Masterchef kitchen to know that the definition of a meal is wide and varied. Qualifications become irrelevant in the face of flavour - which is where this steaming hot plate of fried turnip cake in XO sauce from Orient comes in. The £5 delight hits pretty much all the marks. It’s piled high with texture and flavour, from the simultaneously soft and crisp cake to the crunch of beansprouts mixed with chilli and flecks of pork sausage. It’s impossible to resist. But if you are concerned that one plate does not equate to a meal, then there’s plenty of dim sum options that will keep you under a tenner.
Bánh mì thap cam, £8.50
A friend of mine went to this recently opened Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road and ventured that their banh mi was “so-so” a while ago, which just goes to show - trust no one. Their classic bánh mì is much better than that. For starters, the bread is the real deal. Not a crusty baguette nor a lesser replacement. It’s a soft and springy torpedo filled with not one, not two, not three, not four, but five varieties of pork (char siu, mortadella sausage, pork belly, ham hock, and pork floss) as well as paté and a handful of coriander. Without doubt an excellent addition to your friendship group.
Falafel pita, £7
I’ll be the first to admit that all recommendation websites have biases. We’ll more than likely bang on about this place or that place because, well, everyone has favourites. So you’ve more than likely heard or read or even consumed the falafel pita from Pockets at this point. But that doesn’t mean I won’t stop going on about it, nor eating one on a weekly basis. Living down the road helps but I can’t stress enough how worthwhile the queue or journey for this gorgeously layered, heavily condimented, springily soft falafel pita is. I knew things were serious when - sorry, sorry, sorry for TMI - but during a recent bout of IBS I pathetically shuffled over to get my Pockets fix. I still managed a meek nod to the offer of a chilli on top, of course.
Jerk chicken sandwich, £5.50
The first lockdown was grim for lots of reasons. Not least the amount of times I stood alone in Crocs and pyjamas outside the Old Town Hall on Mare Street, attempting to manifest Rainbow Cookout into existence, before dejectedly moping up to Percy Ingle for a consolatory cream finger (needless to say my body’s solemn requirement for jam, cream, and a Ribena did not take their closing well). Anyway, finally, finally Rainbow Cookout appeared before me. Naturally I’d just eaten (a sandwich) but naturally that didn’t stop me from eating (another sandwich) again. This one was jerk chicken. The meat from a freshly grilled leg methodically pulled off by Otis - the world’s most laconic and considered grill master - and its crisp blackened skin carefully removed with Peking duck-like precision. All of this is put between two thick wholemeal slices and topped with careful ladles of fragrant and spiced gravy with carrots, onions, and cabbage knocking about in there as well. It’s there Wednesday to Saturday or, as Otis told me, “whenever I feel like getting out of bed”.
Cheese and garlic Marmite pizza bread, £6.50
A while ago a friend told me that whenever her period is starting her partner, another wise friend, knows to immediately line her up a whole cheese and garlic marmite pizza bread from Yard Sale. It’s one of the most touching and umami-filled gestures of love I have ever heard. It’s also a fucking delicious one. This is - and I don’t say this lightly - something close to perfection. It’s gooey, it’s salty, it has tar-like Marmite that’s bubbled and submerged itself into crust. It’s become an indisputable addition to every 18” pizza order. In fact, it has priority over the pizza.
Hanoi spring roll, £7
If you’re going to get one thing from Hai Café, then I’d strongly recommend you go for one of their £5 bánh mì. They are a somewhat outrageous and delicious submarine-sized bargain. But if you’re going to get two things, then I’d direct you towards their Hanoi spring roll salad. I ate this immediately post bánh mì (and shortly before consuming an unexpected jerk chicken sandwich) and it went down a bloody treat. This isn’t your usual spring roll. It’s squared and quartered and packed with crab and pork mince, shiitake and wood ear mushrooms. The roll is more fish cake like, really, but retains a thin layer of crisp that I enjoyed piling into my mouth along with pickled carrots, coriander, vermicelli and a dip of nouc cham dressing. It’s not the ideal thing to eat with your hands, but, when a dog called Richard comes along and licks the chopstick you dropped on the floor, I imagine you’ll have no problem making it happen either.
Mixed starters with bread, £9
There’s no point denying my love of bread and even less point unembracing it seeing as London is filled with incredible bready options from all over the world. One of my favourite breads of the moment is coming out of Patogh, an old school Persian favourite in W1. Their bread is slapped inside the walls of a clay oven, baked and blistered, then still warm when it comes to your table, which is the kind of thing that makes my heart start beating a little faster. Made to be torn and dipped and scooped with their shallot yoghurt, hommous, and crunchy shirazi salad - it’s a faultless summer meal.
Beef ho fun, £9.60
Dim Sum & Duck may be flavour of the month right now but it isn’t only the things in their name that means this place is on my mind non-stop. It’s all the other possibilities. Such is the size of their menu and the quality of everything I’ve eaten so far there, it’s the rest - the uneaten - that has me wondering... it can’t all be this good, can it? Take this stir-fried beef ho fun, glistening in the sun like a Brit abroad who’s taken one step out of the airport doors, for example. There isn’t a drop of excess oil on these noodles, the beef is tender, the bean sprouts crunchy, the noodles soy-soaked, and the entire thing layered with a savoury umami-ness that has me salivating as I type.