The cafes and snack shops of Elephant and Castle are tucked and folded into corners: not just in railway arches, but also sharing their spaces with nail salons and hairdressers, trading in the ground floors and basements of housing estates, or even disguised as bars or bakeries, often without any signposting. They are a testament to the ingenuity of the predominantly Colombian and Ecuadorean immigrants who have built one of London’s most concentrated, thriving, and yet somehow hidden food scenes. Many of these places are Colombian bakeries, but often these shops exist as liminal spaces between cafe, bakery, restaurant, meeting place, produce shop and nightclub. Here is a guide to all of them, and what snacks to order at each.Read More
The Ultimate Guide to Elephant and Castle’s Cafe Culture
Colombian and Ecuadorean specialities, greaseless, sugary churros, the hot dog of a lifetime, and more
La Vida Loca
At this arch it’s all about the £12 menu del dia — set menu — which often kicks off with a big warming bowl of creamy sancocho with globules of chicken fat glistening on top and ballast provided by a variety of root vegetables. For mains, it could be two thick pieces of churrasco, boiled potatoes, salad, rice, and ají to cut through it all, or a whole tilapia, curled and crispy. All are served on chopping boards as plates cannot contain the portion sizes. For dessert, try the obleas con arequipe — thick communion wafer sandwiches filled with dulce de leche that could reverse falling congregation numbers if rolled out in churches worldwide.
Absolutely vital while discussing Latin American cuisine is the importance of ají, the hot sauce made from spiky ají peppers that every restaurant or cafe will have on the table. Every restaurant and cafe in Elephant takes pride in making its own ají — no two are the same. The one at La Caleñita is unusual in that it is almost all chilli and onion, and an ideal way to enliven Oscar Caicedo’s baked goods such as buñuelos, pandebonos, and papas rellenas — a plainer, more potato-heavy version than other bakeries in the area — or the £7 two-course menu del dia. Inside the arch that La Caleñita is in, a small stall sells drinks and ice cream, reminiscent of fresh fruit juices made from technicolor fruits — lulo, mora and guanabana — that line the stalls of Bogotá.
Aroma de Cafe
This is a workers’s cafe hidden in the recesses of the Tiendas del Sur, an arcade of grocers, currency exchanges and hair salons on the ground floor of the Sherstone Court building. Weekday lunch options range from three choices of sopa and six to seven choices of secondo. The sopa is a Colombian institution: often broth based like a sancocho de gallina, which is hen broth with potatoes and cassava, and caldo de castilla, beef rib broth with cobs of corn, or slow-cooked frijoles or mondongo, tripe in broth simmered till gelatinous. Mains tend to be simple, filling, and delicious: grilled meat and fish with rice and beans, or a fried cutlet, or stew, which costs £7 with a drink. On weekends, the menu is a little more extensive, with dishes like viudo, a stew of tilapia that literally means ‘widower’ served with the fish separated from its broth, a speciality of Tolima.
Restaurante la Negra
The only indication of this Colombian-Brazilian cafe’s presence is a small red, yellow and green board outside the new Theo’s pizzeria with an arrow pointing towards a building to the left of the Tiendas del Sur. Walk upstairs to the first floor, and next to the Dominican hairdressers is a small cafe run by a mother and son duo, where a stream of people send money back home as you dine. Fried items include the Brazilian coxinhas, which are teardrop parcels of shredded chicken or pastels with assorted fillings. As the owners are Colombian, the mains tend towards that region, such as well-fried breaded cutlets with plantain, black beans and potato salad, or creamy stews of half chicken on the bone. But on certain days it’s possible to eat Brazilian feijoada, a Portuguese influenced thick stew of beans and pork.
This two tiered bakery-cafe is located in the first arch next to the Strata building. Baked goods are universally fine here, and many Colombians come here to buy arepas and empanadas in bulk, either fresh or frozen, to use at home. Papas rellenas are balls of rice, peas and strands of slow-cooked beef denser than a neutron star, containing an extraordinarily generous filling that spills out of its TARDIS-like interior. The crimped Cornish pasty-looking pastries are actually salteñas, empanadas filled with chicken, olives, hard boiled egg and sweet gravy, loved by the local Bolivian community. There is a Colombian lunch menu on which resides the simple chicharron arepa, a whole rib worth of meat, where the skin and fat of the belly has become so crisp it’s almost like fried chicken.
Is it a cafe, restaurant, sports bar, club or a dance hall? And is it Distriandina or The Colombian? These are questions to look out for when visiting this ‘cafe’. If La Bodeguita is Elephant and Castle’s heart then Distriandina is its soul. By day, fill up on stir-fried arroz chino with chuleta valluna aka breaded pork cutlets on the side. On weekends, until the wee hours, this is the place to come for reggaeton, merengue and salsa; the place is rammed and is a lively treble counterpart to Corsica Studio’s rattling bass next door. Which is why it’s all the more damning that Distriandina will be forced by redevelopment to move without any compensation while Corsica is given £125,000 by the developers to fully soundproof their venue in anticipation of new residents. It would be a shame if London cannot find a place for both venues.
Sabor De Mi Tierra
Unlike Distriandina that closes the restaurant early for dancing, Sabor De Mi Tierra is in a constant liminal state between serving food and dancing. The kitchen is run by Maria, who also cooks at Santafereno in Brixton’s covered market, and her menu can be divided neatly into breakfast — calentado paisa of beans, eggs and meat if dining solo, a whole picada of belly, chorizo, grilled pork and steak if sharing — lunch — various three course menu del dias for just £7.50 — and dinner where big bowls of wet rice, breaded chops and especially steaks can be ordered a la carte.
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Perhaps the single most vital arch in the area, and besides being a proper Colombian tienda that sells and distributes South American groceries and baked items, Chatica has also branched out as a full-fledged bakery, with highlights including soft cheesy bombs of buñuelos, rings of roscon filled with shockingly pink guayaba pulp, comfortingly bland humitas wrapped in corn husks, huge globes of papa rellenas, and tamales. For early-birds and all-night revellers from Distriandina and Corsica Studios there is calentada, Colombian breakfast made from previous day’s rice and beans, reheated with scrambled egg, steak, chorizo and arepita. Don’t miss their homemade ice creams made with vivid Colombian fruits such as guanabana, lulo and mora.
In the morning, this is an excellent place for calentada, which can be ordered alongside a full English fry up, or freshly made pandebonos and bunuelos, the size of dragon eggs. At lunchtime, there is a set food menu for £7 on weekdays, which expands on Saturdays and Sundays to include tamales, arroz chino and chuleta valluna — a Colombian pork milanese. Like with Casa Colombia and a few other bakeries making their produce from scratch, it’s worth noting that masa can be bought by the kilo for £10, allowing the home baker to make their own arepas, empanadas and tamales.
Latin Bites London
The furthest satellite of the shopping centre’s La Bodeguita, this is their modestly-sized Walworth Road outpost for breads, coffees and snacks. Mini empanadas of beef or chicken showcase a thick, crisp crust concealing sticky, slow-cooked meat, while almojabanas — cheese buns — must be consumed straight from the oven with a coffee or hot chocolate to best enjoy their soft, spongy texture and slightly tart lactic flavour. Most intriguing are the lunch bowls — takeaway tubs filled generously with chorizo, pork belly, chicken or shredded beef with beans and lentils, which make them a direct (and far better) competitor to Pret’s protein pots.
El Paso - Cafe & Burritos
Only in London can burritos casually exist alongside a full English. At El Paso, it is possible to order a decent if anonymous burrito but there’s one dish here that no one else in London does — a British breakfast burrito fused with the Mexican-American tradition of wrapping a fry up in a tortilla. The El Paso breakfast burrito revels in inauthenticity with its scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, cheese, pinto beans, pico de gallo, and is even better with sour cream and hot sauce. Isabel who runs El Paso is thinking of doing a more ‘authentic’ chorizo and crispy bacon breakfast burrito in the new year but there’s something unique about this one that London can and should claim as its own.
Situated in a tiny space that is the size of a cubicle next to La Fama, this cafe sees a swift turnaround in hot drinks, baked items and arepas throughout the day. Baked buñuelos and pandebonos are perfect salty foils to mugs of sweet hot chocolate spiked with cinnamon. Torta de choclo is a dense sweet croquette of corn, smashed and fried up like a hush puppy, while arepas can be ordered with cornmeal and stuffed with cheese or with fresh corn and served simply with butter. The arepa de paisa is an astonishing circular empanada, a delicious ‘everything pie’ stuffed with the components of a bandeja paisa — chorizo, crispy husks of chicharron, shredded chicken and beef, plantain and black beans — and is a filling meal for just £3.
Unnamed churros stall
This nameless one-man operation next to La Bodeguita’s satellite stall outside the tube station has the entire fried sweet snack market of Elephant and Castle wanting churros and donuts. The churros are three thick long stems for £2 and are fried fresh to order, which makes all the difference. Donuts are for the purists. Essentially the Neapolitan of the donut world, it’s a Homer Simpson favourite containing dough and sugar, and cutting through the oily-crusted outer golden ring gives way to fluffy white innards. This simple sugar-dusted treat is the perfect ending to a meal from any of its surrounding neighbours.
There’s a strange sort of alchemy to the perro caliente — literally hot dog — that to a Colombian suggests a creamy, fruity, crunchy mess of flavour and texture. Migues makes the best in the area with just a grill and a microwave. First, a bun is softened, while a readymade frank is griddled with barely cooked onion. Melted white cheese is then smeared, before filling the bun with onions and sausage. Next, it’s topped with ketchup, mayonnaise, salsa rosa — ketchup and mayonnaise — crushed crisps and radioactively orange pineapple sauce. The result is a hot dog with a flavour profile that threatens to topple under its own weight: as the pineapple becomes too sweet, along comes a wave of salty cheese to reset the taste buds. Delicious in the most appalling way possible, just one might be enough to satisfy a lifetime of cravings.
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The Castle Cafe
There is a curious and an almost certainly coincidental symbiosis between the food eaten by workers in Colombia and the UK. Empanadas are essentially a spicier and less stodgy version of Cornish pasties, while a bandeja paisa is a fry up with an accent. The Castle Cafe, situated under the railway arches, is frequented by many Colombian workers in the area and it’s possible to easily confuse their polystyrene cups of creamy masato de arroz, a spiced rice drink similar to horchata, with British cafe frequenters sipping steaming cups of strong milky tea. The food here is honest and no frills with a menu del dia. There are also several baked items: make sure to get a pandebono hot from the oven, a squishy bun made with tapioca starch stuffed with melted cheese, with a hot chocolate as a balanced snack.