It’s now clear that whatever happens, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre’s days are numbered, with the central London development earmarked for demolition. However, it’s still not too late to eat there — from Colombian papas rellenas, Ecuadorian encebollado and Cantonese wontons to Guyanese roti, Nigerian suya, Spanish croquetas and Jamaican ackee, Thai noodles, Tandoori chicken, and a vegan sausage roll from one of the only Greggs in London with an original white and gold storefront. Many of these stalls or units will pop-up elsewhere in Elephant and Castle once the shopping centre is gone, particularly over in a temporary shipping container structure in new development Elephant Square, but in the meantime, here is a guide to every single food and drink outlet.
Miko’s is one of the very few restaurants in London that specialises in the food of Ecuador, which can be loosely categorised into mountainous Andean — hearty, often maize and meat based — and coastal — seafood, ceviche, anything that could be mistaken for Peruvian. Miko’s does both: rice dishes are done particularly well here, either with mixed seafood or, even better, chaulafan, a kind of bastard fried rice derived from the Mandarin chaofan or fried rice and brought to Ecuador via Peru’s Chinese diaspora. On weekends, the menu opens up to encompass soups and fried corvina or croakers, and the room bustles early morning with diners gulping down bracing bowls of encebollado, a tuna, cassava and onion soup that according to owner Lenin doubles up as a mean hangover cure, For those who are more sober, try the llapingachos — potato cakes the colour of sunshine, with a side of fried eggs and either Ecuadorian chorizo or hornado, that is roast pork. Give it a year before someone savvy cottons on and it’s seen on every Antipodean brunch menu in central London. Lenin has not secured new premises yet but says the new address will be advertised sometime during the six months notice they get.
It’s at night that La Bodeguita comes into its own, doubling up as a bar and restaurant. The food is generous: there’s rendition of bandeja paisa with crisp chicharron, steak, eggs, plantain, rice, avocado and beans, and the Arroz Especial, a wet rice dish with prawns that can be scooped up with tostones. La Bodeguita also has a few satellites: a small cafe called Latin Bites on Walworth Road, and a stall by the bus stop where it’s possible to buy empanadas or arepa with chicharron to take away. Due to its size and importance to the community, La Bodeguita is one of the few outlets to have secured premises elsewhere — over on East Street, around a 10 minutes walk away — and one of the businesses most likely to take up a unit in the new centre.
Occupying a central position on the ground floor of the shopping centre, this small unit only opens during lunch, where speed is a virtue. It’s possible for a fast eater to finish business in 10 minutes if so inclined — and let’s face it, a plastic table in the middle of a busy centre is no place to linger. There is usually a special of the day, most often tandoori chicken, burnished and seasoned well. Beef curry or daal comes in polystyrene plates with a generous serving of three chapatis. All this will cost around £3.50-4 a serving, which is great value for honest food.
Owned by Faye Gomes, an extraordinarily talented cook who just happens to be running a stall in the centre’s moat, Kaieteur Kitchen’s food is the kind of unaffected nourishment served without ego that’s only possible to get through familial ties. Although adept in cooking all of Guyana’s complex mix of cuisines, Gomes’s best talents are reflected in rice. On Fridays there are specials worth travelling for: a black pudding made from scratch with intestine and rice, and cow heel souse. Gomes invests so much in her food that often as a one-woman operation, she’s been unable to attend most of the meetings regarding the future of the centre. Wherever she goes to next, make sure to get there for lunchtime and pay homage to Faye’s warmth, generosity and cooking.
Daddy O’s Suya Spot
Suya is the easiest thing to grasp about Nigerian cooking as a newcomer, before being initiated into the pleasures of swallow, the pounded starchy grains, millets and tubers that accompany stews. Oliajide Agbede’s stall is all about the extras — swallow in the form of fufu and eba, leafy nutty egusi soup, and fiery beef stews — but it’s still suya that brings people in. Seasoned and charred, the chicken suya is then reheated, chopped on the bone, and sprinkled with a homemade spice mix, aromatic with ginger and freshly ground chiles. Gizzard suya is made fresh and doused in an oily marinade containing onions and peppers. A double portion is £2 and can be mopped up with a Nigerian bun, an unbelievably delicious dough dumpling with a crunchy outer crust of sugar, that provides plain, sweet ballast to the gizzard’s fire and funk. Oliajide has been more involved with the process of securing new premises in the new centre, but having received no assurances Daddy O’s future is still up in the air.
A much maligned word, fusion, when applied to food, is also imprecise. What constitutes fusion? Sometimes it’s really simple: Kubolonia’s owner Jorge’s mother is Thai and his dad is Spanish, so why not cook both? Most of the Spanish dishes are prepped in advance like a seafood paella or a homely fricassee of pollo en pepitoria. Greaseless, creamy, and with the comforting balm of nutmeg, chicken croquetas are a mainstay. Thai food is cooked to order by Jorge’s mother on a powerful wok burner that’s legally allowed to exist in a van, including the beef chilli, a serious rendition of krapow, studded with hot chillis and basil and accompanied by a properly frazzled egg. Unfortunately Kubolonia is now shut and looking for new premises.
The Original Caribbean Spice
The fourth and last of the permanent vans that lie in the west section of Elephant and Castle shopping centre’s moat, The Original Caribbean Spice serves traditional Jamaican food, focusing on stewed meats and rice. The food here is uniformly good: brown stew chicken that’s not overly sweet, ackee and saltfish, and oxtail, slow-cooked until tender and yielding. Usually there are three dishes out of eight or nine available each day, but best of all, on Fridays, the owner opens up an oil drum and barbecues jerk chicken — best eaten while the char of the grill is still fresh with plenty of homemade gravy and coleslaw. The van also sells Jamaican patties, ideal as a snack or as a supplement to a main meal, usually available in six to seven flavours.
Mysteriously shut for most of the week, this easy-to-miss stall springs to life on Fridays and Saturdays with 80s disco hits announcing their opening. A small family operation, El Guambra specialises in Ecuadorian home-style dishes, with a few permanent stalwarts such as yaguarlocro — a tripe and assorted offal soup — menudo — the more famous Mexican soup given a milder Ecuadorian twist — or weekly specials like an extraordinary pink-hued seafood broth made intense and briny by heapfuls of prawns, mussels, fish and clams. Following soup is the main event — hornado, slow-cooked roast pork eased into strands and served with its crispy skin, llapingachos, and a mound of pleasingly bland husks of mote. Orders can be made to take away, but a small tent is set up for those who wish to ‘eat in’.
Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles
Under the centre’s northern entrance is one of Elephant’s most singular food outlets. John Otagburuagu, who runs it, is a huge character, rarely seen without his cowboy hat, and the van is a reflection of himself and his obsessions. The focus is quite obviously on coffee — not third-wave malarkey — old school, dark roasts, sweet, dense and expertly pulled. In addition to the various special coffee drinks, there are also an assortment of Liege waffles, inspired by John’s trips around Europe over 20 years ago. Fluffier and denser than the Brussels style, with a brioche-like consistency, the waffle batter is made fresh and studded with pearl sugar that caramelises beautifully on the griddle. While an optimist at heart and in favour of the redevelopment, at the time of writing John has received no assurances of a permanent spot from Delancey in the new centre or where to go next, and has set up a Gofundme page to keep the business afloat.
A ramshackle stall just outside the doors of the centre, The Elephant is a one-man lunchtime operation that packs up by 3-4 pm. The owner/chef is originally from Kerala and sells home-cooked Indian food to go at absurdly low prices. Chicken biryani with drumsticks costs just £3.50, or £4 for a mix with a southern Indian beef curry. There is also decent chana masala and daal. Whatever is ordered, make sure to get it with some of his excellent mango pickle.
With the success of Dishoom and trendy regional Indian cuisine, the institution of the British Indian cuisine has started to feel like an old war horse. However, there is still something in the communality, ritual and in its cheapness. The litany of curries is all present and correct at Castle Tandoori, the largest and most comfortable of all the shopping centre units. The tip here is to avoid the more unusual dishes and stick to tried and tested. Chicken jalfrezi is a picture perfect definition of whatever jalfrezi-ness is — hot and acidic with peppers and onion. Butter chicken is like brown velvet, everything you want for in a rich, Punjabi-inspired curry-to-be. Plain naans are particularly good, while the biriyanis are no worse. The ersatz joy of British-Indian cuisine is something to be treasured, and there’s a reason Castle Tandoori has been going for 37 years.
Tai Tip Mein
A fixture of Elephant for many years, Tai Tip Mein is currently located in a kind of bunker attached to the main body of the shopping centre. This is a place that specialises in quantity and nostalgia. The dumplings in wonton soup could do with more sweetness from minced prawn but the bowl is big enough to drown in and can be salvaged with chilli oil. Fried noodles with seafood is an assortment of textures — pleasantly rubbery fish balls, fish cake, bouncy prawns and chewy squid are bound together with the umami of soy. Fried beef in any dish can be substituted for the much more interesting slow braise of brisket if asked for politely. The food here is no better than it needs to be and never worse than acceptable; it’s cheap, needlessly vast and one of the few things open late on a weekday. It’s the last resort everyone needs on their doorstep.
Castle Brasserie does have a menu, and quite an extensive one at that. And it’s possible to find everything expected from a traditional Colombian restaurant. In the evenings there’s usually a special or two, an all-in deal for around £13 that includes a soup — frijoles or sancocho de costilla de res, a warming beef rib soup — and a main, which could be a creamy cazuela de marisco aka seafood stew, or the evocatively named bistec a caballo with tomato, onions and a fried egg, or a slab of chicken escalope stuffed with ham and melted cheese. Castle Brasserie is foremost a bar, and a bar needs snacks. Picada Colombiana is a bar snack without compare. Order a bottle of Club Colombia and a pequeño portion and for £8 it’s possible to get a sharing plate of small tooth-picked bites of chicharron, sour Colombian chorizo and pork ribs, accompanied by fried plantain and cassava.
A truly bizarre cafe, very few places like Sundial exist outside a school or work canteen. There are about four or five seemingly disparate menus — all day breakfast, fish or pie and chips, burgers, sandwiches and jacket potatoes, and high street fried chicken — none of which could remotely be described as healthy. None offer many surprises, but there is good value for money here. Large hot sandwiches such as chicken escalope and cheese are priced between £2.50-3, decent pie, chips and mushy peas for £6, and takeaway pieces of chicken to rival Morleys for £1.30. Like Ronsil, this does exactly what it says on the tin.
Cafe Nova Interchange
Ostensibly a cafe selling ready-made sandwiches, Cafe Nova Interchange was the geographical and communal centre of the first floor as well as a social enterprise providing training and employment for persons with disabilities. Everyday there would be a blackboard special, usually a biryani, for £3 to eat in or takeaway. While this article was being written, on September 24, and after 17 years trading on the floor, Cafe Nova unexpectedly shut, with no provisions made for its future. It has been replaced by a new Italian pasta and sandwich stall called Cafe Castello, which will take up space until the centre is demolished.
The London Palace bingo hall was also home to Kay’s Kitchen, which has pivoted along with its clientele from ‘Traditional Food of the British Isles” — read: chicken nuggets and chips — to hearty Jamaican cuisine. Here, it’s possible to load up on goat curry on the bone, pillowy ackee with generous chunks of saltfish, and oxtail stew so soft and gelatinous it’s possible to cut through it with the plastic cutlery provided. Taste the richness of the gravy in the oxtail and you’ll want to pour it all over your chips; look around and see a thousand other people had the same idea. The food here is partially subsidised, and on some days even complimentary, but £3/£4 a head will provide a bingo card-staining feast. Unfortunately in April, ‘eyes down’ was called on Kay’s for the last time.
To walk into the Elephant and Castle branch of Jenny’s is to inject the past straight into your veins — and calling it ‘retro’ doesn’t cut it. The menu can be loosely divided into all-day fry ups, traditional British meat, potato and veg and 1970s American nostalgia. There is one line cook making everything on a single grill so expect a long wait. Lamb’s liver, bacon and onions is classic rib sticking fare — the liver overcooked as it so often is in British cafes but is saved by the sweetness of gravy and caramelised onions. Burgers can be ordered by the quarter or half pound, but it’s difficult to resist the JJ special with a tyre ring of frankfurter. It’s also one of the only places in London where it’s still possible to find a completely old school knickerbocker glory. Although populated by an older clientele, no matter how untrendy the food, it’d be a shame if places like this die — like all the other communities who rely on Elephant, everyone is just looking for their own taste of home.
For more information on the transformation of of Elephant and Castle, follow Latin Elephant (@latinelephant) and Southwark Notes (@southwarknotes).