Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Big Apple Hot Dogs: best in show

Fantastical and phallic

I hate hotdogs. I hate those tinned rubber tubes Princes make; I hate the slimey onion-covered meat-smash travesties you get at fairs; I hate currywurst (it's just a sausage with curry powder!); and I even hate the charred Lincolnshires people think are vital to a rainy British barbecue.

And the bread's always awful. It either falls apart the moment moisture hits it, or it's so doughy a builder could use it to stick bricks together.

But then I was sat at my desk yesterday when a colleague dropped Scout London on my desk. On the front was a sausage/bap combo straight from the fires of hell. It was like the Barbie of hot dogs - all plastic, shiny and brightly coloured (and no genitals either). With complete disinterest I started flicking the pages, until I came across the top ten dogs in London feature.

They all looked disgusting, especially the one apparently balanced on a latex glove. They looked like the kind of food photography you get outside the worst restaurants in China Town - all faded and warped by the sun. Even the Hawksmoor chilli cheese dog, made by one of the finest steak restaurants in London, looked like a still from Embarrassing Bodies.

So it was to my great surprise that I found myself wondering past Old Street roundabout towards Big Apple Hot Dog's stand, number four in the list. The photo was as plain as could be – a dull red sausage in a white bap. Sat next to Hawkmoor's gooey rash it looked practically puritan. It turned out to be everything but.

Big Apple has a big and shiny stand with branded fencing and a big umbrella. Unfortunately the effect is rather ruined by the dirty Ford Mondeo parked up behind it, where the ingredients are kept. We were greeted by a typically cheeky East London chap who was almost dizzy with excitement at the opportunity to serve such good sausages, particularly ones called "Massive Poles". And who can blame him.

As our server so happily implied, the Massive Pole is indeed phallic, but more to the point it's a Polish sausage that's around 94% pork, and I can assure you that it's a very different kind of sausage to anything you might get served at you mate's barbecue in his concrete backgarden. Despite its boring presentation in Scout London, I opted for the sweaty onions and as much mustard and ketchup as I could fit on without putting my clothes at risk. And it suddenly looked like something I wanted to eat.

The meat was so dense it was like biting into an apple – and the sound was almost the same, with a physical snap as I broke through the skin. The sausage was so big and crescent shaped that when I bit into one end, the other end flicked up and hit me in the face, leaving me with ketchup as far north as the bridge of my nose. They don't give you serviettes either, so the clothes I had sworn to protect were coated in bright yellow and red by the end, and every time I breathed I could smell the mustard on my nose.

Still worth it, still brilliant, and still better than any other dog I've seen or eaten. But then as far as I'm concerned, I've only tried one real one. But that's going to change.

Track down the stand just beyond the Fire Station near exit 2 of Old Street Tube.

Big Apple Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Chicken Shop: breast chicken in london

No jokes, just brilliant.

So there’s a newish trend among good restaurants of offering only three or four main courses. They’ve all decided we don’t need choice, we need to be spoonfed (not literally unless it’s soup). Instead of choice they’re overselling what they do offer, through more provenance, endless buzz terms and the odd French word. Diners also aren’t worthy of cardboard menus anymore either, just paper ones. All we’d do is spill our jus all over it.

The founders of the Chicken Shop, the second restaurant attached to Pizza East in Kentish Town, evidently think the choice of four main courses is a bit much for the average consumer. Instead they offer one; one main dish, helpfully labelled “chicken”. They sidestep the fact that they are marinated in paprika and oregano overnight and spit-roasted whole at the back of the restaurant. Because that might confuse us.

And we have enough choices to make. We have to choose the size –quarter, half or whole; we have to choose what sauce to put on it – hot or smoky; and then we have the sides, and there a like... four of those.
I chose chips – the gorgeous crunchy numbers they serve upstairs at Dirty Burger – while my friend went for the awesome house salad – cos and avocado in a buttermilk dressing. Apparently buttermilk has almost no fat. Who knew.

The chicken and sides came in white enamel dishes, thrown onto the table by our busy waiters (we had three within the hour we had the table) with something bordering on care. Having dipped my finger in both the sauce bottles (sorry) I plumped for the smoky sauce. While the hot one was delicious zingy and lemony, the idea of eating half a chicken coated in the stuff made me sweat. The smoky still had a kick, but both sauces could have done with being a little stickier. Not only would it have helped the texture, it would have saved my friend’s dress a trip to the dry cleaner. No real complaints about the meat though – moist without being watery, smoked without being burnt and stacked with flavours so good I actually considered gnawing the bones. Luckily the waiter prematurely took away the bowl with them in, so I was spared the indignity.
Sometimes you feel a bit hurried – you only have table for an hour, and the queue is inside, so people watch and hover over you like vultures, knowing that every second you linger is a second longer for them to wait. But they can have drinks while they wait and it’s such a pleasant place to be – all old wood, smoky spit-roasts and people chatting animatedly despite having chicken in their teeth – that it doesn't matter.

The Chicken Shop seems to be one of those eureka moments – a concept so perfect it’s amazing no one has tried it before. That’s probably because it wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago, when the idea of fine dining was the Ivy. Now it’s these little secret places where you’re encouraged to eat with your hands; where you can take your food away to the nearest pub and eat there; where if you order the apple pie, the waiter brings the whole damn thing and lets you cut as big a slice as you want; and where people are happy to queue for 20 minutes for a bit of chicken.

It would be easy to overstate how good the Chicken Shop is. It’s very clever but in a simple way, and its food is very tasty but in an unambitious way. But you can’t deny that it’s probably the most satisfying and delicious places to eat in London – the fact it costs less than £20 for two courses, drinks and service is, frankly, ludicrous.

53-79 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, London

Chicken Shop on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 8 October 2012

Dirty Burger: worth its salt

Trashy as hell. Tasty as heaven.

I haven't taken a picture of the outside of Dirty Burger. It has to be seen to be believed, and it's very important that you don't quite believe in Dirty Burger. The reality is less satisfying. It's an ideal; a dream; a craving. 

It's also a shack, attached to the back of Pizza East in Kentish Town. It forms one corner of the kind of car park you don't expect to see outside of a Swindon industrial park. It's artfully designed to look like a cabin in the woods, and does so very well until you walk in and everyone's got thick-rimmed glasses and their polo shirt buttons done up so tight they are struggling to swallow their burgers.

But they have to swallow, because Dirty Burger burgers are so salty - so lip-wrinklingly salty - that you're addicted after one mouthful.

Given that they appear to have been assembled and then dunked in the Dead Sea, they are still damned fine burgers. The patties aren't a patch on meatLIQUOR, and nor is the sauce, but they don't insist on using American cheese which is a relief. Instead you get sticky, stringy, non-luminous cheese that sticks gleefully to the paper the burgers come wrapped in. You also get a slightly damp bap, which should be a let down, but it actually it helps the defiantly dirty textures as it all combines into one filthy, glorious cocktail in your mouth.

By contrast, the chips were crispy. So crispy. It was brilliant - almost like eating crisps - except for the bizarre lack of salt. It was as if the chef had lined the burger and chips up, seasoned the pattie, wondered off, come back and forgotten which one he'd seasoned. Still, those crinkle-cut fries were excellent, as were the unforgettable onion fries - essentially onion rings fried to within an inch of their lives in oil so thick even Michael Phelps would drown.

So I wasn't completely sold on the food, and my vanilla milkshake was a little sweet too - I say this knowing it's as banal as going a Mika gig and saying it was a bit camp. Somehow I still loved it all, like someone clinging on to a relationship despite all the bad parts: I LOVED that the food took 10 minutes to arrive despite being a fast food chain; I ADORED the fact that there were no seats and we had to sit on the fire escape stairs outside; I MISS the way it fell apart in my hands. The dream was nothing like I thought it would be, but it was still a dream.

Like the best rock stars, Dirty Burger is brilliant and flawed, cheap and nasty, and a slight disappointment when you meet it in person.

Dirty Burger on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

You can also read my review of Pizza East, which Dirty Burger is attached to the back of, here