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When Burritos Go High Street

You might not have heard that the world’s renown Mexican street food burritos, indeed, dated back to the days of the Aztec; or that the term “burrito” means “little donkey” suggestive of the shape of the tortilla wrap that resembles a donkey’s ear. For the filling, you opt for different types of meat; the usual are grilled steak, carnitas (slow cooked pork with cinnamon, cilantro, oregano), barbacoa (slow cooked beef with juniper, cumin, chilli) or chicken tinga (cooked with onion and chipotle marinate). You might also not know that there are differences between a Mexican burrito and an American one. All we know is that very recently the burritos have invaded many of London’s high street and major business areas. Judging from the long queue at Mas Burritos on St Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden at lunch hours, it seems that burritos have become the “new” sandwich. Of course, there are reasons for that. They are hot, filling and absolutely meaty-licious! And as much as I hate to admit, I am among those people waiting for my Mexican fix…

Wait! I’ll correct my words. … I am among those people waiting for my American fix!

The popular burritos places on the high street sell not authentic Mexican burritos but the modified American version. The differences? The Mexican burritos are small and sound kinda dull – with only meat, rice and refried beans as fillings. The American counterpart is much bigger – explaining why many Americans are obese and many Mexicans have become Miss World? – and with unlimited choices of fillings from rice, refried beans, meat, to lettuce, guacamole, salsa, cheese and whatever else you want to put in. Mexican or American, I don’t really care. These little donkey ears are just amazing. So, let’s compare what’s on offer from the most popular burritos cafes in London!

CHILANGO

Chilango on Urbanspoon

This is where I first had my burritos and fell (almost) in love with it. The one I visited today is the Fleet Street branch – there is another Chilango on Upper Street, Islington. Good vibe, colourful decor with the highlights on pink stools and the glass counter where you may observe the staff make fresh guacamole. The Subway-style menu layout makes it easy to order. Pick your style of burritos, your meat, your veggie and your sauce. You don’t need background knowledge in Mexican food as all things are labelled in easy English terms – pork, steak, chicken. Good things about Chilango are that (1) many things are made on the premise and (2) they mostly source British produce. Price-wise – say, one burritos with one drink – it won’t cost you more than £7.

Verdict of the Day?

Massive burritos, served almost hot and with a cute logo! The fillings, however, were not drained well enough and the juice went all over the place. I was really conscious eating this as the thing I wore cost .. well .. a lot! Also, it was not wrapped tightly enough. On this occasion, I went for the pork filling, which was mild to the point of blandness. They have Cholula Hot Sauce and Tabasco on the side for Mexico-Americano masochists. All in all? Not my pick, I’m afraid.

MAS BURRITOS

Mas Burritos on Urbanspoon

The Covent Garden branch – as there is the other branch in Chancery Lane – is my neighbourhood cafe. Vibrant scene, little cactus decoration and friendly staff. And it’s exactly where I turned a burritos addict. The menu requires more knowledge into the Mexican terms. You’ll be reading carnitas instead of pork, barbacoa instead of beef and you should also be able to differentiate between grilled chicken and chicken tinga. For a burritos virgin, you might find yourself baffled by all that. Adding to the linguistic drawbacks, the ingredients are not prepared at the premise. One burritos here plus one drink will cost around £6.50.

Verdict of the Day?

This is my most favourite high street burrito place, though the piece isn’t as eye-bulgingly massive as at Chilango. The fillings are usually well drained and tightly wrapped, which truly facilitates the eating! The meat, whatever you pick, is bold in its flavours and the spices come through nicely. But, the burritos here are never as hot as at Chilango. My favourite picks are Barbecoa – deep, dark and rich – and Chicken Tinga – sweet and tender. The packaging is not consistent, though. If you opt to eat in and are lucky, you’ll get poshed up basket with free nachos. If the luck isn’t on your side, you’ll get a paper plate. That said, Mas Burritos houses the best selection of Cholula Hot Sauce – sorry I’m a real chilli whore – with choices from the Original, the Garlic and Chilli to the super heated Chipotle mix. This is my pick, of course!

Lucky day …

Not-so-lucky day … but the burritos are always very good! The thing is called Mas Fajitas – with peppers and onions instead of refried beans – with Chicken Tinga.

CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL

Chipotle Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

This is a true American import and I understand it was much anticipated, not the same sense as Dinner by Heston, I must add. The place looks a bit like a factory cafeteria and lacks warmth. The price is a little more upmarket than the rest mentioned in this post. Say, one burrito plus one drink will cost around £8. The menu is easy to read – beef, pork, chicken – though its American original uses terms like Carnitas and Barbacoa.

Verdict of the Day?

I asked for a naked burritos with barbacoa. Great quality meat. Well seasoned and well cooked, though not as rich and bold as Mas Burritos. Overall, this does worth a pound extra. To me, there is no negative about Chipotle and it’s down to preference only!

Tucking in …

BENITO’S HAT

Benito's Hat on Urbanspoon

The last one and it’s also round my corner. Benito’s Hat on New Row looks more like a cheap canteen but the price range is similar to Chilango, and it proves on a couple of occasions with robotic staff. They shout, “Guacamole, salsa and cheese?”, but as my preference goes, when I tell them to opt out the guacamole and the cheese, I can often see this horrific look on their face, as if I bugger their burritos. The menu reads easy, like Chilango. Actually, it reads easier. I once asked for a naked burritos, a common terminology for a burritos without the tortilla wrap. Again, the staff looked mortified. Enough said…

Verdict of the Day?

This came as a surprise. My burritos was wrapped in a near square shape. It was hard to eat. The meat was also not nicely drained and at the end of the quick meal my hands were wet. Smell-wise? My cat mistook my hand for that of the burritos I’d just eaten. Also, the proportion of everything inside was just wrong. Too much rice, not enough meat. Bla bla bla .. I wasn’t impressed at all. Well, in their defense, you’ll always get free nachos.

I hope this helps you find the burritos of your choice in London!

Hasta pronto xx

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Grazing the “Fashion” Scene

What is “fashion” and what is “fashionable”? Everybody, it seems, interprets those terms differently. I do admit I have a hard time editing content for my London “Fashion” Eat fortnight. If “fashion” suggests “trend” and “fashionable” means “trendy”, we will only be strictly talking about great food with great ambiance populated by fat and skinny bastards like us, won’t we? But, if we take into account the “fashion” and “fashionable” folk and what they actually eat, we will be talking about skipping meals, skimming carb, body conscious or mere cheap eat (so money can be spent elsewhere on clothing and accessories). And, what about London Fashion Week A/W 11-12? It’s, as usual, held at Somerset House and other scattering sites around Covent Garden. Should I also be thinking about where to flash eat but in style to fit my LFW busy schedule, too? So, my more or less London Fashion Eat first post will give you the sites where “fashion” and “food” converge. Have a look and decide for yourself which of “scene” you are into!

(1) THE CARAMEL ROOM, BERKELEY HOTEL

Caramel Room (The Berkeley Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Fashion couldn’t be materialised into food as literally as this. The Berkely’s much talked about Pret A Portea features afternoon tea menu inspired by recent fashion trends and major designer’s labels. Say, you’ll get Zac Posen, Alexander McQueen and Christian Laboutin on your fine china manufactured by Sir Paul Smith. This is not the kind of traditional afternoon tea as one would imagine. While there are still scones and jam and finger sandwiches, the actual highlight is the innovative patisserie. This comes with a tag explicating which cakes are inspired by what. Novelty? Yes, exactly. Personally, I don’t think it’s a mere gimmick but I’d rather have a solid, traditional afternoon tea fix at, say, Brown’s Hotel, the Connaught or Claridge’s, where I can get a slice of Dundee cake or Victoria Sponge. The very proper ones, I mean.

(2) SKETCH THE PARLOUR

Sketch - the Parlour on Urbanspoon

This multi-million project by Pierre Gagnaire has turned an instutition itself after 3-4 years. It is still hip though its iconic egg shell toilets ooze unappetising smell. Years ago, I thought Sketch did the best ever scones in London – light, fluffy and butter-perfect! Now? Well, perhaps due to its proximity to Oxford Street, the funky Gothic-Eclectic decor at the Parlour has attracted the high-street folk than the high fashion fab. The service is laissez-faire, which on this occasion, can be translated into English as unengaging and “let the diners be”.

The afternoon tea is still decent, but considering that it costs £27 per head with no refill, I’d rather go somewhere else and pay a little extra for unlimited sandwiches, cakes and choices of tea. At the Parlour, they do only a pot with no hot water refill. Standard kinda fingers sandwiches, not particularly deep-filled to £27 or enough to balance off the heavy carb. The cakes by Gagnaire are probably ones of the finest in the world – only perhaps outdone by the other Frenchie Pierre (Herme). I quite enjoyed the coconut madeleine but found the canele too rock solid I needed a fist to break. The scones – you’ll get two each – used to be better and are not so stuffy as they are now. And, there was only one choice of fruit scones. The jam of raspberry and orange marmalade was, for the former, sour beyond redemption and, for the latter, bitter beyond .. jam! I was having this last Saturday and wasn’t quite sure if I was actually having scones with jam or with unripe fruit. Enough said, really …

Oh, don’t forget to check out the loo. It’s rather coo..l. That said, as there is no ventilation within the egg shell cubible, you need to pray a bit that the one getting in before you do not leave behind the foul aroma of tea – sorry!- “wee”.

Next!

(3) ROSE BAKERY, DOVER STREET MARKET

After all the bitching, this is my pick of grazing food. Rose Bakery is a much unheard of, least written about cafe. It is a Parisian import tucked in one small corner at the top floor of Dover Street Market. If the weather’s good, you can opt for outdoor seating. Though the view isn’t one of the most stunning, it is one of the most neighnourly. You’ll get to see Mayfair from a point of view of tranquility! There are also a lot of art and fashion magazines to browse, while waiting for your hunger fix.

Wait! Maybe I should say something about Dover Street Market, which itself is an exclusive, rarely spoken about concept fashion store, the outpost of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons label. Yes, you walk into the place and there are these people who are dressed to inspire – or simply make you feel fashionably inferior – and sell items that will cost you at least £100 per piece. Rose Bakery, funny enough, is a subversion of all this. Cheap, organic, health-conscious, minimalist food. Think Canela but without the freaking microwaves to warm food up, or enormous quiche a whole family can feast on. Still, the crowd at Rose Bakery is the fashion-minded upper crust and many Mayfair locals.

The humble menu at Rose Bakery is either prepared raw or with the help of one massive oven. Expect really colourful salad options, some of which are super-good; others underseasoned; but they are all very fresh. They also do Specials of the Day, such as Cottage Pie, Mushroom Risotto and Soups.

And my fix? Bacon quiche which was so perfectly cooked and flavoursome. The egg and bacon mixture had this heavenly fluffy, well-risen texture; the cherry tomatos bursting their juice; and the base was just crispy. It came with a salad with light vinegar dressing. I also asked for their Gluten Free Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie. Very moist, leaning towards chocolaty sweetness than bitterness, and with with grainy bites of hazelnut to trigger my palate.

That’s it. In case you want to see the fashion folk in action, you might want to loiter at Tom’s Deli at Somerset House. Great selection of sandwiches and cakes and its side windows just overlook the back stage entrance of LFW main catwalk! Link here x

Enough said,

My head rating for Pret A Portea at the Berkeley Hotel says, “7 out of 10″.

for Sketch the Parlour says, “6 out of 10″.

for Rose Bakery Dover Street Market says, “9 out of 10″.

My heart rating for Pret A Portea at the Berkeley Hotel says, “7 out of 10″.

for Sketch the Parlour says, “5 out of 10″.

for Rose Bakery Dover Street Market says, “9 out of 10″.

CARAMEL ROOM, BERKELEY HOTEL

Gound Floor, Berkeley Hotel
Wilton’s Place
Knightsbridge
London
SW1X 7RL

Tel. 020 7201 1699

www.the-berkeley.co.uk

SKETCH THE PARLOUR

9 Conduit Street
London
W1S 2XG

Tel. 020 7659 4500

www.sketch.uk.com

ROSE BAKERY DOVER STREET MARKET

Top Flr Dover Street Market
17-18 Dover Street
London
W1S 4LT

Tel. 020 7518 0680

www.doverstreetmarket.com

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Beirut Express: Best of Shawarma

UPDATED 7 JUNE 2011

The best Shawarma wrap in London..

Somebody told me this.

I was first taken to Beirut Express by my other bib. I didn’t do cheap caff-like restaurants back then. But, as it happened, I was thrilled by the offering at this unassuming Lebanese eatery. The theatricality is unmissable. Tons of rotating meat with the chefs’ rashly carving it off during bustling service. You could feel the aggression in the slicing, the heat burning your face and char your skin if seated at the kitchen counter.

Big menu. Not as elaborate as Maroush (of which Beirut Express is a spin-off but surpasses in taste). Get drinks from the juice bar. All squeezed to order. Great variations, including lemon, orange, melon, pineapple, carrot, and the list goes on and on and on……

An easy way to get through the menu is to get a Mixed Starter (Houmous, Babaganoush, Parsley Salad, Moussaka, Pickled Vine Leaves, Falafel, Yogurt). £10? A melange of many things so delicious. Velvety houmous and delicately smoked babaganoush. Infectious. I couldn’t really eat them anywhere else now. Chunky bits of aubergine in tomato concentrate for their moussaka. Crispy skin falafel. So fragrant. I could go on and on about this!! The platter comes with warm flat bread and pickles.

Not particularly keen on the vine leaves.. but it’s my personal preference.

Our “special” = Halloumi Cheese

They do grilled and deep fried ones.. great quality cheese it squeaks when you eat. Inch-and-a-half thick!!! I love the deep fried ones but never manage to hang around and take pictures. Expect bursting crusty cheesy and something gummy inside.

And the Shawarma wrap. Mine is usually of mixed meats. Chicken and lamb. Wrapped in warm flat bread. Crunchy onion and salad. Garlic and chilli cream.. (sometimes it can be greasy but) it always satisfies me ^_^

And to finish off my meal.

Half a kilo of Baklava to go. At £6. Crispy layers not drown by the honey. Clear and generous crushed cashew nut filling. Too bad they don’t do any other variety. It suffices..

After years Beirut Express becomes the kind of greasy finger food I couldn’t resist. Many impulsive trips at midnight (as the place is shut at 2am). There will be a queue. There is always a queue at any time of the day.

More than happy to wait.. for all that food.

One thing. Don’t expect too much for the service. They’re there to do the job… not to smile and start conversation.

Enough said,

My head rating says, “10 out of 10″.

My heart rating says, “9 out of 10″.

BEIRUT EXPRESS EDGWARE

112-114 Edgware Road
London
W2

Tel. 020 7724 2700

www.maroush.com/pages/bexpress.htm

Beirut Express on Urbanspoon

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When Michelin Star Meets Thai Street Noodle …

Last year I went to this two-Michelin-starred French restaurant The Square, in London, and was rather intrigued by this nibble of Assorted Crispy Fish Skins.

But, when I was in Thailand, I found a Thai version of this Michelin-starred nibble, or even better? In the form of ….

CRISPY SALMON SKINS

To go with a massive bowl of Tom Yum noodle soup with pork balls and offals.

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