A Stroll Around Brick Lane Market On A Sunday
Following last summer’s Camden Street Food article, I thought it was time for the second part of the series focusing on possibly the only area of London that can compete with Camden in terms of the variety food available. So I decided to take a walk around the market sampling some of the best street food Brick Lane has to offer.
Home to a large Asian community, Brick Lane has rightfully earned the nickname “Curry Capital Of The World”, due to the vast amount of Asian-run restaurants which line both sides of the lane from end to end. But many visitors (my hero Anthony Bourdain included) have made the mistake of labelling Brick Lane an Indian area when in fact, the residents are predominantly Bangladeshi.
But there are two things you can always get in Brick Lane. A good curry is one of them. However on Sundays, the market takes centre stage and the curry houses are thrown into competition with the street vendors who provide the Sunday shoppers with a much wider choice, representing cuisines from across the globe. And it is these that I will focus on today.
Those who are frequent visitors to the Lane will know that, like any market, it isn’t without its problems. It’s dirty, crowded, and like any public space you should always watch your pockets. But on the other hand, it’s full of history, character, and much like it’s North London neighbour, great food.
So this time around I’m going to come from a slightly different angle and focus on the love / hate relationship I have with Brick Lane (with the emphasis on love), and attempt to give you a tour of the street food on offer. Where last time it was about my personal favourites, this time it’s about my experiences, both good and bad. And I’ve also enlisted the help of my cousin George and his amazing camera to make the experience a lot smoother with tonnes more pixels (whatever they are). So, here goes…
The Beigel Shop
Or “Beigel Bake”, or “Brick Lane Bakery”, but known locally as just “The Beigel Shop”, this place is an institution. No trip to Brick Lane would be complete without mentioning this place, and when walking from my house this is often the first port of call, right at the Bethnal Green Road entrance to the lane.
Brick Lane was a Jewish area before it became predominantly Muslim (and ironically the first turning on the right is called Bacon Street). And when the Jews moved in they brought their beigels with them.
For those of you who don’t know, beigels (and yes, that IS the correct spelling and is also how they should be pronounced, being from East London I do not recognise the word “bagel”), are a simple ring of bread with a sweet taste and slightly chewy texture. They’re the other thing that you can always get in Brick Lane. They’re delicious on their own or with a filling of your choice, the more popular ones being salt beef, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and chopped herring. With the exception of the salt beef they are all ridiculously cheap.
The best part about the beigel shop is that it’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Always a good place to come for a snack if everywhere else has shut, or if you only have a couple of quid in your pocket.
Under The Railway Bridge
The short stretch of road underneath the newly opened London Overground train line is one of the three main areas of Brick Lane in terms of street food vendors, and is also home to the Carrom Club opposite the Masala Chai stall, where you can sit down and have a game of Carrom (Shuffleboard), for free.
The Empanadas aren’t bad here, and they offer a few different fillings although I always go for the classic “De Carne”. There’s also a sweet stand…
And a stand selling various different cups of fresh juice. There’s also usually a Jordanian falafel guy around this area who wasn’t here the day we went but is usually pretty good.
The Food Hall
Further up on the left is the first of two indoor food areas, which has only opened up in the past year or so. Because of this, the outlets are constantly changing from week to week, although a handful have become permanent fixtures. El Mexicano (below) is one place you can’t go wrong with.
No-nonsense Mexican food. There’s another one in the Vintage Market further down, but for some reason I prefer this one. There’s also the Moroccan Paradise place…
… which isn’t bad at all. Their spinach and chickpea tagine (below) is one of the better vegetarian dishes you’ll get in the market, although stay away from the chicken meatballs (if you’re vegetarian or otherwise).
Acarajé is one of the newer places and flies the flag for Brazilian food which is sadly under-represented in London, although I’ve got to be honest and say the Acarajé itself wasn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten, largely due to the addition of some prawns that were less than fresh.
There’s also the Okonomiyaki place. There used to be three of these. Nowadays there seems to just be the one, although it is always crowded so there is no shortage of demand for their Japanese pancakes. Again, I have to say I was not overly impressed. Others might like it, but it just wasn’t really my thing. Perhaps the fact that I was suffering from a terrible hangover at the time didn’t help, or perhaps it was the presence of cheese in a Japanese dish that threw me off guard. On a more positive note, they also offer Onigiri which are a handy little snack for a pound, simple and tasty.
Out On The Street
Mama’s Jerk Station (above) is located back out on the street and to the right by 93 Feet East, and is one place where you can get satisfying Caribbean-style barbecue which reminds me of the ones we used to have at my uncle Max’s place when I was a nipper. There’s another jerk place back in the food hall which is fairly new and I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, and yet another in the vintage market which is a bit overpriced. So thus far this place is leading the way locally in terms of Caribbean food.
Just further up on the right is the Whole Hog Roast, where they literally do go the whole hog and roast an entire pig although sod’s law dictated that the day we arrive with cameras, the guy sadly hadn’t had his piggy delivered in time and had to make do with some pre-cut joints of pork instead, therefore the shot below doesn’t really do this place justice. Trust me, go there on any other day and you will see an entire pig.
The guy is friendly and only too happy to offer you a free sample, but after tasting it you’ll probably want to go for a whole bun with crackling and apple sauce. George decided on this above everything else in the market that day and gave it the thumbs up. So it’s one to look out for – they also offer Portuguese custard tarts and Guarana Antarctica (My favourite soft drink) as well.
Cafe 1001 is a kind of happening place, good for meeting up with friends and the like. The outdoor grill does no-nonsense BBQ fayre accompanied by cold beer. What more could you want??
And further down the little sidestreet is the Thai & Lao Cuisine place. Thai food is everywhere these days, but this is the only place I’ve seen Lao cuisine to date. I haven’t tried this one yet but whenever I walk past there I always notice how quiet it is. You never see a queue here. I can only hope that’s due to it’s tucked-away location rather than the quality.
The Vintage Market
The vintage market is a maze of tables and trains of people trying to squeeze past you in an endless line. It’s helpful if you know what you want here, so you can make a beeline for it, however I like to take my time and look around, making up my mind (something Dean knows only too well). So this place isn’t ideal. My favourite street food stand ever used to be here (the Món Me Bánh Mì stall), but this is sadly no longer around. Their Vietnamese baguettes were the perfect thing for a Sunday morning. I hope they read this and come back, or at least let me know where they’ve gone!!
Spanish Caravan: Kind of the centerpiece of the vintage market’s food section, this place serves paella, assorted salads named after various regions of spain, pastries and gazpacho soup. Everything really does taste homemade. Worth a visit.
And there’s another shot showing a bit more of what they have on offer.
Tibet Kitchen: Offering steamed or fried dumplings called “Momos”, they also have a couple of dishes which resemble the generic fake stuff which is pawned off as Chinese food around Camden and to a lesser extent, Brick Lane. So needless to say, avoid those. The “momos” are “soso”. Not really doing it for me in general, but I like to see obscure places such as Tibet represented.
Sushi. Yes, sushi. Now you can’t blame me for being skeptical about the quality (or freshness of ingredients) of sushi bought from a market. For ages I avoided these types of place for obvious reasons, but one day I decided to try some. And… it wasn’t so bad. Of course, in terms of quality it’s not even on the same page as a place such as Asa Kusa, but it’s miles ahead of those awful pre-boxed sushi sets from Boots / Somerfield / (Insert high-street chain here). And it will satisfy a spontaneous sushi craving. Also, I think George wins the award for the single best photo in this article for the above offering.
The Curry Mile
Turn right outside of the vintage market and you’ll enter the so-called Curry Mile, the stretch of Brick Lane with the highest concentration of curry houses. The so-called “Curry Touts” are normally out in full force trying to entice you inside despite regular council threats of heavy fines. If you aren’t in the mood for a curry then “We’ve just eaten” works well and you’ll find yourself saying it every 5 yards. Although it won’t stop them from explaining why you should go to their particular restaurant next time. For the perfect way to wrap up an afternoon sampling foods from all over the world, pay a visit to one of the Asian sweet stores such as Alauddin’s (below).
They offer (surprisingly enough) a wide selection of Asian sweets (pictured below) which are very rich, comparable in richness and sugar content to that of baklava and perhaps even more so. You’ll only need one of these, trust me.
We concluded our tour of Brick Lane with a wander down to Taj Stores. This is a large Asian supermarket where you can get a wide range of products not widely available elsewhere. A vast array of spices, various frozen exotic fish, a wide selection of Halal meat, some of the less common cooking utensils, and Asian pickles and condiments. But perhaps most worthy of a mention is their produce selection – to this day probably the only place Anthony Bourdain has visited in any of his episodes that I’ve been to. They have some of the more exotic fruits such as rambutan (similar to a lychee), and vegetables such as bitter and pointed gourd and others I can’t even name.
Also, I’ve noticed something. Isn’t it strange how there are so many curry houses in Brick Lane, and all of them seem to have at some point in their lives won the “Best curry house in Brick Lane” award…
All photography courtesy of George Bennett.