Stax Diner / Soho, London
Kingly Court, previously a bastion of dinky little boutique stores (and a skate shop that sold way too much Carhartt) in Central London, recently succumbed to the Smoke’s insatiable need for more places to eat.
The company behind the Carnaby Street courtyard have put their money where our gobs are and re-developed the place as a new food court destination for the shop-weary masses, just missing the vital Spudulike.
Notable takers to the new units include celebrated dough-botherers Pizza Pilgrims and Stax Diner, the new concept from the brains behind cake emporium Bea’s of Bloomsbury. The novelty that the inventor of the Duffin (no matter what Starbucks says) was transitioning into savoury Americana aside, you had us at diner.
We wouldn’t say Stax is a diner so much, perhaps more of a hybrid of of one. It lacks the vinyl-clad banquettes and formica table tops, the furnishings have veered down the now-too-common reclaimed kitsch alley, but it has some neat touches: the drum kit bolted to the ceiling makes an excellent light fixture, and with the records tacked to the wall behind the bar the place feels like an episode of Top of the Pops 2.
The abridged menu concentrates on the now familiar, with a few lesser-seen American classics thrown in. The cheeseburger is put together like a SoCal classic, with distinct similarities in its make up to Hodad’s: Slews of thick mayo is berthed above huge sloppy rings of grilled onions whilst hunks of iceberg leaves and fat slices of tomato line the bottom.
The in-house ground patties are nicely dishevelled clumps, a lovely line of pink running through them, topped by a thick slice of great sticky American cheese. Although it was seared the crust didn’t deliver the flavour bang it visually promised, and the under-seasoned meat was juicy and delightfully soft but tame. It was loosely packed, but to the point that it was falling apart before any dental damage had been inflicted on it. The sweet brioche suffered from being a touch dry and unstable in it’s adhesiveness, failing to deal with the combined juices. By the end, a debris of meat and carb rubble lay strewn across the greaseproof lining paper.
The onions were soft and added good moisture and texture but were also wanting in flavour, and the abundance of a thick-but-mild mayonnaise highlighted the lack of bold tastes for it to counter. The huge slab of tomato on top near-entire leaves of lettuce proved awkward and became a slip ‘n slide for everything above and below to tumble around on. Whilst pretty, it was an awkward bastard to consume.
That was soft launch, so we waited a few weeks and headed back to sample again and grab a second option. Whilst the onions had been manhandled on the grill a bit more and provided a better savoury note and the beef had been given a heftier does of pepper, the burger still lacked the stomp of flavour you hope for, and still fell apart with gay abandon once grabbed. It was a shame for something with such visual potential.
But hang on, the chicken and waffles. The fucking chicken and waffles.
Where the burger fell short, this made up for in leaps and syrupy bounds. The waffle had a bit of resistance on the outer shell but was nice and fluffy soft on the inside, a good hint of sweetness running through it. The huge goujon-like piece of chicken was covered in an excellent rugged buttermilk breadcrumb which had a superb crunch, with just enough give to it, and a great savoury seasoning. Inside was very moist flesh piping steam. With the syrup generously poured over both, the sweetness countered against the seasoned crust and chewy waffle was banging. Cannot say we’ve had better in the States.
The abridged menu has some other lesser-seen American classics on it. We will be back to try the shrimp po’boy and the cajun onion blossom, akin to something we have not witnessed since a trip to a Floridian Outback Steakhouse in our teens. Oh, and the weekend brunch guys. Jeez, there are a few more visits needed here for sure.
Original Fry Up Material x Three Compasses / Dalston, London
Way way back, in the skeumorphic days of OSX v10.8, we hit up Netil Market (home of the Lucky Chip van) and had a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich from these guys. It was like a super-seasoned homemade McMuffin. And lo, it was good.
And we had them on the Boulevard at Kerb Kings Cross too. Quite a few times. Such a handsome bunch, serving an altogether fetching breakfast offering.
It has been a while since then, but we’ve been keeping an eye on them, consistently mistaking their Twitter account for the musings of Observer Food Monthly. They have been tirelessly touring the festival circuit in their Carry On era ambulance and a winter stint up in Leeds’ innovative shopping center street food court, Trinity Kitchen, had OFM honing their burger construction skills. The meaty fruits of their labours have been transported beyond The Wall, back to Dalston where they have implanted themselves in the Kitchen of the Three Compasses, just a spatula’s lob from Ridley Road Market.
A couple of years ago (we are talking ye olde OSX Lion times) we visited this establishment to sample the goods of the now defunct Fattburger. It is good to see that, whilst the bulk of clientele has gotten more obliquely attired, the deep rouge paint job hasn’t been covered up by a more aesthetically acceptable shade of pale and the two dart boards still hang on those delightfully dark walls. And they are still championing the humble seared-beef sandwich.
What a boozer.
The menu is nice and simple, offering three meat and a token veggie option. An ordering snafu meant we were delivered the Bacon Blue (instead the American-cheesed Cheesy) and Sweetsmoke. No matter though because what turned up looked stellar.
A chopped gem lettuce rainforest covered the bottom of the enamel dishes. Perched atop the canopy were thick, nicely charred patties with faint dashes of pink exposing themselves, and above them plump, dewy, cloche-glistened buns with drizzles of red and yellow sauces raining down from it.
The meat was impressively consistent: The inside of the patties had perfectly soft pink flesh, with the outer edges showing a thick, darkened char crust with a great salty kick. Just how we like and hard to fault.The buns, with a lightest in hue reminiscent of Lucky Chip, were squishy and soft, yet not shy of a bit of chewy resistence.
The added extras were just as solid in quality. The sauce in the Bacon Blue was a great consistency, with thick lumps of blue cheese exerting sour notes amongst the nice mildness of it’s viscous partner. Mixed with the pleasurably chewy, meaty saltiness of the bacon the combination hit the classic flavour profile, with plenty of ketchup and mustard intermingled helping it avoid being and obvious.
The bacon in the Sweetsmoke was literally that: contrasting notes of noticable sweet whiskiness bashing with the smokiness of the bacon.
It was immense.
The maturity of the smoked cheddar added a good savoury bolster to the patty. But the honey mustard sauce was a suprising, and wildly successful, addition throwing a great heat-plus-sweet cutting through those savoury elements. Even the gem lettuce, which might have looked overkill was a good choice adding a solid crunchy sourness.
Their time up North has produced some exceptional results, giving East London a place to consume a delightfully dirty burger with some great taste combinations. Long may they continue to serve there, (as long as we can join the darts league).
Henry Burgers / Southend, UK
Summer is here. And we all know that an inevitable overcast weekend in August will be spent at the seaside.
Of the day-trippable places from London, one is Southend - the common mans’ Brighton. The slightly commoner mans’ Hastings - You can numb your arse on pebbly beaches, take a tiny train up a really long pier, or play on knackered, gack-buttoned arcade machines in crumbling, post-apocalyptic Vegassian arcade halls. We fucking love the place.
Tonking buckets of cash at Adventure Island builds up an appetite, and if you don’t fancy the fish and chips then you can always head to Henry Burgers…
Off the beaten path of the high street, Henry is located down Southend’s ‘alternative’ alley way, at the former site of infamously questionable club The Sunrooms. Next door is a tattoo parlour, cupcake bakery, and no doubt soon a traditional-yet-modern barbers. Its a right supermicro-Camden in the brewing.
From the outside it looks like a Côte except for the simple striking logo adorning the windows, a rather fetching Shake Shackian shade of design. You get the feeling the simple snug interior, with its questionable wall colouring, has had little done to it and statement additions come in the form of labourer-chic table top covered wooden pallets posing as eating stations. We positioned ourselves on one and ordered.
The Bacon Cheeseburger that arrived had the appearance of a deliciously bedraggled mess, thoroughly lashed with rivers of ‘American style’ cheese the consistency of a slightly gooier nacho cheese - It was everywhere, cloaking the patty almost entirely with only spidery pieces of iceberg and mere glimpses of the house sauce poking out.
It was the highlight by a pier length: satisfyingly sloppy and surprisingly flavourful, in such quantity that you could happily pick dollops off without worrying about it disappearing. The patty underneath was disappointing: overcooked, quite dry, and too tightly packed, making the mouthful hard work to get through and doing a dis-service to the meat, which was a touch under-seasoned with additional flecks of green that were visible, but not noticeable.
The bun was a valient attempt at a brioche but was oversized and rather dense making it doughy and chewy. Paired with the patty, the jaw had a lot to do. The chunks of raw onion and tomato added a freshness alongside the lettuce. But whilst the cheese was in abundance, the house sauce was lacking and what was there was nowt special. The pretty bacon, awkwardly stuck in the no-man’s land between crispy and soft, failed to be anything other than standard too.
Whether they admit to it or not, a lot of places in The Provinces are cashing in on the highly successful MEATliquor model, on a smaller budget. Burgers, craft beers and cocktails with a misty air of rebellion. But there is a noticeable quality inconsistency that regional gaffs arguably get away with more than London’s highly scrutinised establishments. And Henry suffers from this a bit. We can’t give it a free pass just because it’s beyond the M25.
Yeah, the fries are decent and the chilli atop them is a nicely sauced pulled meat with solid flavour and kick. But the deep fried gherkins were woeful greasy messes of thin, translucent batter that disintegrated off of the pickle the second you touched it, served with an underwhelming, and still thawing out, blue cheese dip.
And service was SLOW. It took 40-plus minutes for our food to arrive. There was a table of ten being served ahead of us, but the place was not close to full with only one other table. Busy nights must be interesting. And by interesting we mean long. Bigger grill required.
With a second location coming soon, it is a measurable local success. With a touch less mimicry, and a bit more product development, there is potential down Diagoth Alley.
Coffee Dogs / King’s Cross, London
Our ears were certainly pricked by initial internet rumblings about Coffee Dogs - a place rumoured to be selling Chicago-style hot dogs, burgers and frozen custard that wasn’t Shake Shake, all within the phosphorescent glow of the new terminus at King’s Cross. And they even spelled ‘donuts’ all Americanish.
And then the opening date came and went, and the internet was silent. Imagine that. All of the Guardian and Central St Martin’s up the boulevard, and not even a hint of a rosy-hued Instagram pic. Due to our carefree nonchalance, and crippling inability to sync calendar dates, we are rarely one of the first to check anything out. So we waited, and waited, for chatter that never came. Not very auspicious a start.
So we checked out the website of these Dogs of Coffee. While the illustrations of Chicago dog and burger that accompanied the menu sections suggested they were going to be authentic enough, there were no actual pictures of the food.
Add dubious to the inauspicious box.
It was mere curiosity, and the kind of laziness that sees microwaving something as a step too far, that took us there one night on the way home after work.
The cheeseburger was quick to come, empty as it was around nine-thirty. Suspiciously quick.
Unwrapping the parchment revealed a relatively thin patty covered in a completely transparent cheese, complete with leviathan lettuce leaf inserted as some kind of glide-assistance tool.
The bun was springy and looked oddly promising, but was ultimately a rather factory-y, dry bap. But the thin patty was just plain old terrible: Overcooked, the outside displayed less a char and more that weird gelatinous burger skin you find on the ever-resting mounds of meat found at burger vans countless festivals and footie matches across the land. Which is exactly what it fucking tasted like: a chewy and rubbery disc of misery.
The red onions had been cooked to a similar low standard, with the recognisable oily and stale taste. The colourless cheddar succeeded in having no discernible flavour either. Which made it a shame that the burger sauce, a mixture of sweet, spicy and piquant flavours with a mayo-like base, was solid. Pretty much what you want from a condiment. The veggies gave the burger a recognisable ‘American’ look, but you may as well put a luminous tutu on a shit dancer the amount of difference it makes.
As the name suggests, the passion for this place would seem to be in the coffee and the hot dogs. But despite the bubbly and friendly staff that were the most enjoyable part of the experience, it is very doubtful we’ll be heading back to try them.
Liberty Cheesesteak Company / London
Rough interpretations of the cheesesteak aren’t that hard to find anymore.
The MEAT franchises have been serving them up for a while, and so do the Diner chains. Red Dog also have them in their sandwich shop on Hoxton square, which we have yet to visit. Camden market apparently has a pitch selling them too. But on hearing that a new stall was serving up ‘authentic’ versions, we couldn’t not check them out.
We hit the monthly Baker Street Quarter market, plonked behind Selfridges, to find three Phillies-shirted Yanks crammed in to a small tent, almost tripping over each other speedily preparing sandwiches on a dinky grill surrounded by a wooden screen looking like it had been constructed from the wreckage of an ikea bookshelf. Inventive.
Ordering was simple enough: you pick your size, your cheese and whether you want it with onions. There is no messing about with peppers, mushrooms or any other extraneous guff that British variations tend to favour. We have much maligned the availability of American cheeses over here but Liberty seemed to have found them, or are surreptitiously shipping them over, in the Whiz, American and provolone options they are offering (the American was actual real-life deluxe Kraft slices, which connoisseurs will know is very different to what we get here in Europe). Dairy fucking gold. Picking which one to have is like weighing up the merits of the first three Star Wars movies.
Waiting for our Provolone wit and Whiz wit orders, we observed prep at work: Thin slices of rib eye were scooped from huge packs and lobbed on the grill. Once browned, spatulas and nifty hands proficiently hack it into little chunks. Pepper was crunched over, onions plonked in, and the concoction was moved into position to have the cheese added and melted. Bewitching.
The Italian roll, aided by some time steaming in the foil wrapper, was nicely soft but still retaining that good kind of chewy pull of the bite. The skinny strips of rib eye gave no resistance, and the sauteed onions were meltably soft. The texture was banging, but the flavour wasn’t off the charts. That was where the cheese came in.
The sticky provolone provided a subtle mild and almost nutty sweetness to the sandwich. But the Whiz, the fucking WHIZ guys, was a gorgeous thick, gloopy deep-yellow lava punching hefty hits of salty, cheesy flavour amongst everything. Both great, refinery versus balls-out brashness. We took along a relative aficionado of the cheesesteak (afi¦cion|ado: a British person who has visited Philadelphia and eaten a whole bunch ton of cheesesteaks), and boldly said it was up there with the best he’d tasted.
America it ain’t, so the portion sizes aren’t as off-the-hook big as you would like, but the ratio of meat-to-cheese-to-bun is solid and you aren’t left wishing there was more or less of anything. You just get a pretty damn good cheesesteak.
Now, if someone can start serving up a decent shrimp Po’boy then we’re talking…
Febo / Amsterdam
Late night eats are pretty easy to come by in Amsterdam. Most bars will serve snacks reasonably late, and bitterballen in particular are fucking epic mid Heineken-supping eats.
And even when they have whisked away their menus, there are still an array of frites stands and falafel joints (Londoners will recognise Maoz) to satisfying your inebriated self until the early hours. A couple of Burger Bar locations in the center of town are even open until 4am. But they are just regular burger restaurants. Where is the novelty in that?
Which is where Febo comes in.
This is fast food in the ‘automatiek' style: screw talking to actual people, these guys serve their their wares out of vending machines that look like glass-fronted swimming pool lockers. The newer branches are pretty swish, with vibrant digital screens showing off the products on offer. Some of the older branches though, with over-lit, faded pictures have all the charm of a fast food prison run by Starburger.
It doesn’t matter.
You stand there, memerised by the cavalcade of items on offer, as does everyone else, swaying with uncertainty. The concept is hilariously counter-intuitive past 10pm, when street swaying graduates from comically casual to potentially canal-plunging levels. Febo becomes a fucking conundrum: The machines only except change - cue people rooting around in pockets, absently shuffling random coins about palms, or repeatedly missing the slot on the change machine. In a place designed for the fastest delivery of fast food, the chance of anyone buying anything quickly is a rarity.
The food, once you have negotiated your way to it, is fine after several La Chouffes. The burger benefits from a fairly decent bun, classic standard cheese slice melted over a thin suspect patty, and some massively potent orangey-pink grill relish, which has the sharpness of a strong cocktail sauce and is pretty much all your face can register at that stage of inebriation. But they go down easily, so much so that one just isn’t enough.
The thinly breadcrumbed Krokets, one of the multitude of log shaped fried items, are filled with a crazy glutinous meat-gravy ragout with added flecks of ‘healthy’. And they are fucking molten.
At half two in the morning, it all seems like the most fun. And it must look weird as hell to sober folk.
A polite zombie food scrimmage.