East is east, or so it might seem. The truth is that this area of London, so often coded as working class, is rapidly changing, although some people seem to talk about either like it’s still coloured by factory smoke or as if it’s one gigantic Williamsburg. The old working class strongholds of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston are becoming epicentres of fine dining — great for some — but, as such, value there is increasingly harder to come by. Food lovers on a mission need to cast their gaze further afield, further east. This is no longer an East End of Cockneys and eels: east London in 2019 means the Lahori restaurants of Upton Park, a Leytonstone of Romanian delis and Lithuanian pubs, Dalston’s Jamaican takeaways, a Plaistow and Barking that move to the rhythm of Afrobeats, the most exciting concentration of south Indian restaurants in London in East Ham, and a fragmented scene in the Docklands that may one day be a reborn Chinatown. And amid all that, there’s still space for pie and mash and pease pudding.Read More
The Best-Value Restaurants in East London
Outstanding Kerala cuisine in East Ham, one of London’s best breads in Dalston, peerless Thai cooking — and more
Dalston’s worst kept secret somehow remains underrated and inconspicuous: Ararat Bread is Ridley Road’s rough diamond. Chaudhary Zafar Iqbal’s trade is in Pakistani naan, predominantly wholesaled plain or pockmarked with sesame to those in the know (ie. an increasing number of popular street food wrap joints). But the best version is still in person, on the spot, smeared with a coarse mince that pops with coriander seeds, spun at 33rpm on a rotating oven and folded back on itself in a swirl that resembles a cinnamon bun made of lamb — crisp and piping hot with the meat just at the point of caramelisation, and a small whisper of heat that blooms in the mouth. At £2, there is nothing more purely pleasurable available at this price point in any category in London.
Amar Gaon and Cafe Grill
The curry houses around Brick Lane can be quite overwhelming, especially with Adrian Chiles’ face endorsing no fewer than three identikit curry houses. Grinning across the road at each other are Amar Gaon and Cafe Spice, two of the few which cater to the local Sylheti Bangladeshi community without concession to British tastes for rich, Punjabi sauces. Their differences are reflected in disparate takes on the Bangladeshi/Bengali mashed staple of fish bortha — Cafe Grill’s is white and green, fresh, herbal, and vibrant, while Amar Gaon’s is heavier, pungent, and singing with the volatile aroma of mustard oil. Elsewhere, there are dishes that reflect the Bangladeshi love of river fish and seafood: chitol, pabda, hilsha, and the thousand voyeuristic eyes of tiny keski (silverfish) mas bursting in the mouth. Both restaurants are best experienced in a group so that multiple dishes can be ordered and enjoyed alongside shukti satni, an indispensable chilli paste charged with the taste of fermented fish.
Upstream of P.Franco on Lower Clapton Road, Neden Urfa was easy to walk by even when it had bright yellow frontage. Now the family who run it have renovated the shop with a modern grey facade advertising “kebabs and burgers” it’s even easier. Nothing really indicate that the kebabs here are anything beyond the usual nighttime hunger savers, but order a skewer and one of the sons will whip up a lavash bread on the spot quicker than a pizzaiolo. In a few crucial gestures, a great kebab the size and thinness of a clarinet will be presented, elastic and floury, with fat from the meat juice soaking into the lavash and acidity from the array of house made salads dotted with sumac. For those who have been to Paris’ iconic Urfa Durum, a kindred spirit near Chateau d’Eau station which gets the respect it deserves from the French, this is the closest thing London has.
Bánh Mì Hội-An
What is the best bacon and egg sandwich in London? Regency? Pellicci? St John? No. It’s the no 8 special (extra spicy) at Banh Mi Hoi An, located on a side street near Hackney Central. Not a single banh mi stall in London quite nails the the optimal lightness of the baguette, but Hoi An’s is soft, crisp, well toasted, and weapon-ready vast. The Hoi An special has both sweet char siu and thinly sliced pork belly, with little pockets of wobbly omelette coddling the meat; pickles cut through the richness in the manner of a sharp brown sauce. Aside from the egg and bacon, the beef ball curry banh mi is excellent when the chef has it on — needless to say, with the lack of any competition, it’s also the best meatball sub in this city.
Kabul Kebab House
Walthamstow’s High Street, with its market and numberless small cafes, is a difficult place to stand out. Having opened this year as Kabul E Palaw, in August it reopened again as Kabul Kebab House with almost exactly the same menu. It would be a shame if it had to rebrand again or worse, close, since the Afghani dishes here are some of the city’s best. The first sign the Qabuli palaw is the real deal is the lacy fat that sits on the lamb shank like a topsheet, easily whipped off with the prongs of a fork, melding with the sweetness of rice flavoured with carrots and raisins. It’s incredible that something with such simple seasoning can have so much flavour but that’s the wonder of cooking rice in slowly rendering animal fat. Mantoo are paragons of the dumpling, not too drenched in yoghurt and chilli oil, with a higher proportion of heavily spiced meat compared to some of the Turkish versions more readily found in Green Lanes or central London.
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Lorraine Paul’s family’s pease pudding stand has stood here since the utopian days of the 1950s that birthed Chrisp St Market, but both are on borrowed time. While the market gets regenerated, Paul will relocate away from London, perhaps permanently, but there’s still time to try this dying East End tradition at London’s last pease pudding shop. Her pease pudding is pleasingly soft and whipped, the texture of baby food, enlivened by juice from cooked onions and a slick of mustard: yellow on yellow. With taut, snappy red torpedoes of saveloy, a bread roll and faggot stuffing, a creative diner can pay homage to that lasting edifice of north-eastern ingenuity: the saveloy dip.
The Shepherd’s Inn pub on Leytonstone High Road is Lithuanian chain Berneliu Uzeiga’s first inroad into east London’s considerable Lithuanian demographic, and the incongruous mix of cultures produces an old man’s pub with decor somewhere between a castle and a school holiday chalet: lurid pink-orange walls, plush benches, melancholy Lithuanian electro-trash, and Guy Fieri on the TV. It’s a riot. Lithuanian cuisine is an exercise in how many combinations of pork, potato, and dairy it’s possible to eat before exhaustion sets in — with enough sauerkraut and beetroot horseradish, the answer is “all of them.” Cepelinai — little zeppelin balloon dumplings — come stuffed with pork or cheese curds, the potato casing providing a proper QQ texture, with a genius chopped bacon and onion condiment on the side; crispy potato pancakes stuffed with mince sit on a blanket of sour cream. A bland pork shank is worth ordering just for mashed potato, that comes whipped and encased by re-hardened molten cheese, better eaten with pork loin slices charred with onions and paprika. Best and most evil of all, soldiers of brown toast rubbed with garlic and covered in a snowstorm of grated cheese. This is cuffing season food.
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For many, the best Thai restaurant in London; for some dedicated fans, one of the best in the game in any cuisine at any price point right now. Chef Sirichai Kularbwong’s blackboard of joy is updated daily, spanning the rich diversity of southern Thai food, from his inimitable moo krob, sticky with chilli and caramelised chunks of pork belly, to rich curries, and herbal soups. The menu will depend on what the chef and his parents, who have run this restaurant in Leytonstone for 20 years without fanfare, have picked up that day. Look out for whole steamed sea bass, prepared almost Teochew style with ginger and pickled plum, a god-tier iteration of green curry with wobbly beef shortrib, mind-bending fruit salads that expertly marry funk with the sweetness of strawberry or mangosteen, or fierce but balanced curries made with razor clams, gigantic heads-on prawns, fresh crab meat, and — best of all — soft, rosy liver. Tip: order “Thai spicy.”
Leytonstone High Road is filled with unlikely shop-fronts — Lithuanian chain pubs and Romanian bakeries; a certain Thai restaurant. Red Camel is another, a rarity: a destination takeaway joint. Run by an Afghani couple, Farishta and Ackbar, from Mazar-i-Sharif, this brightly signed, small space serves excellent and homely food. Choose from small cushions of lamb shish and koobideh, spiced with cumin and chilli, and gossamer thin-skinned mantu stuffed with lamb mince and topped with yoghurt and chickpeas, to expertly cooked aubergine and okra stews and huge plates of long-grained Qabily pallow, rich with lamb fat. Things may run out, but this is the sort of place where Farishta might disappear for half an hour only to reemerge with a completely fresh batch.
Kate's Cafe and Restaurant
The first stop for any musician playing down the road at Barking, Kate Armah’s Plaistow restaurant is iconic among the Ghanaian and wider west African community. Check the Instagram feed to find out if it’s John Boyega or Zendaya who’s been enjoying the red red recently. Kate’s can be found either by following your nose, or your ear — just listen for Sarkodie basslines being pummelled by the resident DJ. Roasted akonfem (guinea fowls) or deep-fried tsofi (fatty turkey tails) are worthy companions for jollof rice, or even better, blackened kelewele — plantain that has been carefully fried to the texture and flavour of soft toffee. Oh and ask for extra shito, Kate’s homemade chilli sauce, both devastatingly hot and complex with the pungency of fermented shrimp. Those into textural pleasure should try fried gizzards or the hausa koko, a sour, spicy millet porridge that is truly the breakfast of champions.
Lahori Nihaari London
Dining in Lahori Nihaari, with its concise grill menu, slow cooked meats and daals, gives one the feeling of being cooked for by someone’s mum. (If, of course, that mum also happened to own a really good Pakistani restaurant in Upton Park.) The draw here are the cauldrons of lamb or chicken karahi, a stew of on-the-bone meat aggressively spiced with layered aromatics of ginger, cardamom, and chilli, with a proper heart-clogging layer of scarlet oil that sits on top. These come to the table as vast propositions still in the cooking pot and after one spoonful the hoary old question of “Needos vs Tayaabs vs Lahore Kebab” House is rendered completely redundant, the hassle of four or five extra stops on the District Line a no-brainer. Order buttery dal maash and the exceptional sesame studded kulcha naan that arrives positively glowing with ghee, to soak up every last drop.
Udaya Kerala Restaurant
Kerala food is one of the greatest of Indian cuisines because so much of it is quite clearly and unashamedly snacking food to accompany beers by the sea in the Cochin heat. If ranking London’s drunk food then Udaya’s would be somewhere near the top, coming in three categories: stir-fried, deep-fried, and battered to an absolute crisp. Lamb chops may have most likely been mutton but come with a wet spicing that penetrates right to the bone, a tangle of onions, peppers, and chillies on top. A platter of devilled seafood almost fries equally sized pieces of squid, mussels and fish to anonymity but the batter and coating is so addictive it hits pleasure points like a box of popcorn chicken. But best of all is a huge crab fry, nearly all meat — with legs and claws sticking out like edible bones, fried so hard that it’s hard to to scrape off all the coating with teeth. Eat the claws whole and then suck out the white meat gratefully between gulps of draft beer.
Royal Chef London
As the door to Royal Chef opens on East Ham’s High St North it’s possible to hear the unmistakable clank of two machetes on metal working in tandem, resounding like a bell. This is the sound of kothu. Some of London’s best kothu roti — an ingenious way of using up old bread to make a jumble of uncategorisable texture — can be found here. The chicken version is all about the textural non-contrast of different forms of squidge, but the nethali with crispy anchovies and a green chilli kick is the winner. It’s not just about kothu, though. There are also good versions of idiyappam, to be dipped in sweet or savoury gravies, especially as part of an unbeatable £3.50 breakfast deal, along with devilled mutton and various biryanis.
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The cooking at this East Ham Keralan institution has oscillated like a sine wave over the last decade, depending on the chef and which combination of the three owners is currently running things. It’s possible to catch them right now at a peak, with Pritti Gopinath, the wife of owner Biju back as its new chef. Curries and roasts have a depth of flavour and spicing that belies their simple descriptions, and (unless biriyani) should be mopped up with fluffy parottas or snow white appam, crisp around the edges and soft as skin. Even the legendary fries are somehow improved — half a chicken cut into segments then aggressively, skilfully fried with chilli and crispy onions, addictive netholi (anchovy) cooked and eaten whole, or battered mussels that thrillingly squelch and pop in the mouth. Vegetarians are well catered for with curries, sambars and chutneys, especially during Onam when the sadhya meal is cooked in 25 mini portions arranged on a single banana leaf.
Counterintuitively, and against every rule about dining recommendations, to find the best value Nigerian restaurants in London: follow the celebs. Kuramoh Lounge’s patrons read like a who’s who of names that bridge the gap between London and Lagos: Junior Adiosun (aka SMADE) who started Afronation, singer Adekunle Gold, Lagos rapper Ycee, and comedian Woli Arole who frequently collaborates with the restaurant owner on Instagram skits in Yoruba. Oh, and Anthony Joshua. The reason they’re on this stretch of Barking Road is simple: Live Point and Kill Catfish. This may sound dramatic but the customer only does the pointing — in this case at a tank of writhing catfish who know their time is up — the killing along with the careful cleaning and cooking is done in house. Order a beer and portion of searing hot asun in the meantime and wait. The catfish can be prepared either in pepper soup or a stew: the latter comes with the fish expertly cooked, emphasising gelatin, while the deeply complex spicy, slightly sour, slightly nutty stew has blood cousins in Malaysia’s Assam Pedas and Goa’s Ambotik. This, along with the fried croaker on a bed of fried plantain, is worth the trip alone.
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