Does south west London have a fixed identity? Does any area of London? South west never gets coded as anything in particular — one rarely hears of the “south west metropolitan liberal elite”, or of a hip south west London bar. Nor does it have the perpetual underdog status south east London has. This swathe of London contains within it the affluence and banality of Wimbledon, Richmond, and Clapham, but it’s also where Dave rolled around on Mitcham Lane between Streatham and Tooting. And Wiley wasn’t caught slipping in East Sheen. South west London is fragmented, in identity and in area, and so is its food. Rumours that Bourdain wanted to film a Parts Unknown episode in Croydon remain unfounded, but south west’s uncharted territory and offside postcodes means many of its best restaurants have slipped between the cracks and not been picked up — that pocket of Peshawari restaurants in Norbury, a new Somali enclave in Streatham, Latins and Caribbeans in post-gentrification Brixton, Little Ghana in Mitcham and Sutton, a Tooting that can count two markets, a mayor, and some of London’s most exciting Pakistani food, and best of all, the urban prank that places London’s K-Town about five kilometres away from Surrey.Read More
The Best-Value Restaurants in South West London
London’s best Korean restaurants, Trinidadian doubles, Pakistani karahis, and mofongo
The way Londoners speak of New Malden is like the way the British talk about Ireland. They know it’s close, they know it will do them good to visit, they constantly chide themselves for not going, but they never actually go. Part of the problem is that very few people apart from locals go there enough to compare the restaurants, to find out what each one specialises in, who is on the rise and who is in decline. Imone is currently, by a head, the best Korean restaurant in New Malden. The modulation on the banchan betrays a level of care that few places anywhere in London are putting in — a kimchi not fridge cold and not over-fermented but just below body temp, a seasonal pickle like courgette or spaghetti strands of radish that snap with a refreshing acidity. The best dishes on the menu are fish based. Saengsun jjim is a showstopper, a whole whiting in a deeply savoury, spicy sauce, leavened by herbaceous and bitter chrysanthemum greens, while maeungtang has a cleanness and restraint that the very best Korean broths have, backed by a dry anchovy kick and more pearlescent fish. Get on that train.
Chick and Beers
Korean fried chicken has historically been too sweet, too dry, too wet, undercooked, overcooked, battered incorrectly and just generally put through the wringer in London. Chick and Beers is maybe the first to nail it. There are those who will instinctively go for the sweet and spicy yangnyeom as a matter of principle, the kind of people who will order anything on a menu with five chilli symbols next to it, but this is more sweet than spicy. Instead the simple fried is the best option to start with, plainly seasoned, but worth searching in between the bones for. Really it’s the ganjang —soy — that is worth the journey, the batter sweet enough to be redolent of the honey cornflake cakes that every primary school child has attempted to make, yet saved from overwhelming sugariness by the pungency of garlic and crisped onion, the batter pitched somewhere between craggy and hyper-glossy. A new menu luridly promises fried sticks of spam, an innovation which, when it comes, will make Chick and Beers New Malden’s destination restaurant.
Chef Jojo Manalo
Walking into Tooting’s markets is like entering a time warp to 2009, when foodies from all over London were flocking to an embryonic Brixton Village, dining at small restaurants taking advantage of low rents. What’s happened to Brixton can be a warning sign for Tooting, but for now modern British and small plates sidle up to diaspora cafes eking out a living at what Jonathan Gold would call the “centre of entry-level capitalism.” Chef Jojo Manalo is one of these cafes: one of three tiny Filipino spots in the market, and currently the best. A regular caterer for Chelsea Football Club, Manalo’s food tends towards the homestyle items even London’s more progressive Filipino chefs miss — a whole whiteboard of -silogs, the breakfasts of sticky garlic rice and fried eggs. Pair them with magenta bullets of sweet longanisa — longsilog — made in house, or oily white fish, split in two and crisped up on the grill — bangsilog. The whiteboard promises specials like pork nilaga, whose soothing garlic and white pepper broth adds necessary levity to rich mains and an astonishingly good kare-kare. Oxtail disintegrates from the bone and melts into sauce sweet with peanut butter and briny from a concentrated, salty hit of chilli and shrimp paste. There are many great dishes in the market, but Manalo’s kare kare is worth a journey all of its own.
Come to Namak Mandi late on a Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant will still be bustling with well-managed chaos — groups of young men in the carpeted window seats sharing hot, sweet tea, families arguing over who got there first. But waiting is part of the experience at this outstanding Pakistani restaurant specialising in Pashtun cuisine. Everything here is done on a huge scale: the karahis that start their life as a bobbing mass of lamb and whole tomatoes, steamed until they lose their skin and dissolve into the sauce; chapli kebabs like funeral boats in a sea of animal fat, so they arrive moist with a solid centimetre of blackened crust. Only the rooms are small and private, full of people reclining over a communal mat eating sharp charsi karahi or platters of grilled meat. The essential dish is gola karahi, loose and aggressively spiced minced meat kebabs that add a note of char to complete a flawlessly layered sauce shiny with lamb fat. One of London’s best dishes at one of London’s best restaurants.
Pizzeria Pellone London
There are two schools of thought when it comes to pizza. One says that pizza is a beautiful marriage of bread, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, and that all attempts to improve on this have been fools errands. This school also thinks that vanilla is the best flavour of ice cream, and that the invention of salt and vinegar crisps may have been a step too far. The second is those who view the success of a pizza in terms of how many of the toppings would make an Italian nonna cry. Antonio Pellone, with two generations of pizzaiolos behind him on Lavender Hill, may look like the former but is secretly the latter. Yes his margherita is great, his cornicione blistered and his dough both light and digestible, but it’s the second menu of sauceless white “gourmet” pizzas where he shows his mastery. An outstanding signature pizza cossets folds of fatty mortadella offset by the sweetness of a pistachio pesto, hot pink and lemon yellow, perhaps a tribute to Mr Blobby. Or the bufalina gialla, a dance with acidity, lactic from the buffalo mozzarella, malic from sweet yellow datterini, and citric from a spritz of lemon zest. These are inventive, playful pizzas, one degree away from trad but flawlessly executed — even a nonna might laugh, not cry.
Somali Town Restaurant
Around Streatham rail station, a Little Mogadishu is slowly building, reflecting an influx of Somali immigration, with Somali Town the most promising of all the cafe/restaurants in the cluster. There’s little to announce it as a restaurant, apart from a kitchen in the back but get talking to the owner who will let diners know what he has on the go: normally a choice between chopped meat, steaks and fish served with either rice or pasta — a reminder of that Italian colonial influence. Maraq is provided gratis, a plain, brown cloudy broth of exceptional savouriness, with acidity provided by chunks of lemon. A chopped beef braise comes with onions and the right ratio of lean to fatty meat, with a half portion of rice cooked in meat stock and a half portion of red sauce spaghetti for the indecisive. Three things to note: one, this is best eaten with hands; two, the green bottle on the table is a chilli sauce called basbaas and should be used liberally, and three, don’t be surprised to be served a banana with the meal — how to use it is entirely the diner’s prerogative.
It’s a shame that Polish food has so often been mischaracterised as cold and austere, a dreary iron curtain hangover, when so much of Polish food culture is such an enormous amount of fun. At Mikrus on Streatham’s resurgent high street, low blue lighting and disco balls make the perfect setting for turbo-folk and sledzik, pickled herring, flush with white onions, white vinegar and dill, the mortuary cold flesh tasting of the icy depths of the North Sea from whence it came. Potato cakes, placuszki, are rosti on protein shakes, thick, light and crunchy, dipped in a small bucket of sour cream or gravy or ideally, both. Mains could feed an army — a knuckle of pork comes with the stickiest, sour molasses of cabbage, catching all the fat from the pork, as if the chef scraped up the caramelised remnants of ten pans just for one portion. Or an escalope the size of Dominic Cummings’s head crowned with salty cheese, or that old stager beef roulade stuffed with bacon and gherkins. Whatever the order, praise the owner’s homemade kompot and expect to receive some very necessary shots of cherry liquor to settle the stomach on the bus ride back.
Roti Joupa’s greatness is no longer a matter for debate, but as one of the few Trinidadian places in London which is part of the canon it’s important to know how to navigate it properly. As expected from the name, Roti Joupa specialises in the Indian side of Trinidad and Tobago’s cuisine, reflecting owner David Parey’s heritage. Pliant rotis are folded over each other as vehicles for curried meats and vegetables, but to come here and only order this would be missing half the fun. It’s actually all about the snacks, which immaculately juggle sweet, sour and savoury. So first of all, order the hot doubles, two fried bara, cumin scented chickpeas and shredded cucumber, with tamarind and pepper sauce on the side. Then the macaroni pie, hot and gooey, and crucially, flooded with tamarind sauce so it’s equally sweet and salty. It may be London’s only truly great mac and cheese. And then for the mains, not the regular roti but the buss-up-shot, a tangle of torn paratha, buttery and caramelised, to have with mashed pumpkin, again glistening with tamarind. If there’s a reason to go to Clapham, it’s this.
True Flavours Caribbean Cuisine
Acre Lane, that stretch of road between Clapham and Brixton, is often ignored but contains a few areas of interest for those who love food — among them Khamsa for Algerian and newcomers Mikos for a rare sighting of gyros south of the river. The standout is True Flavours, a relatively new (by Jamaican standards, at less than 10 years old) takeaway joint that is permanently busy whether people are inside or not. In the know residents will phone ahead for chef Junior’s cooking, knowing that the warm rack in the back is not for patties but a catalogue of takeaway orders. Oxtail, jerk chicken, fried chicken, fried fish, brown stew chicken — each and every one of these is likely to run out after a canny phone order is placed, but there will always be another tempting option or a small wait for a fresh batch to be made in the well-seasoned cooking pots. The most popular item by far is the pepper steak, charred and singing with thyme, slow cooked until the meat breaks down, served with rice and peas and “jerk pasta,” a massive opportunity missed by a certain celebrity chef.
Asafo Ghanaian Restaurant
One of the best places for restaurant recommendations is diaspora Twitter. Someone will post, “where are all the good London (insert country here) restaurants at?” rolling the dice on a game of one upmanship which always ends in someone saying they don’t exist. One such game in 2015 got a pre-fame Michael Dapaah — of ‘Man’s Not Hot’ notoriety — tweeting “Safari, Gold Coast, Asafo.” The holy trinity of south London’s Ghanaian restaurants. Streatham Hill’s Asafo is a nice contrast to the others, as low-key as Gold Coast is raucous. Kelewele is outstanding, demonstrating that it’s Ghanaians who understand most that the plantain’s innate sweetness must be tempered with spice and char, coming squidgy and almost burnt, like little chunks of sticky fudge dusted with chilli, to pick at while waiting for mains of soups and stews. The wonderfully named Palaver sauce comes with spinach instead of cocoyam leaves, and is so dense with texture and flavour from thickening egusi, beaten egg, and dried fish that it doesn’t need any meat. Then, the bowl of peanut soup, that arrives overflowing with lava-like palm oil, with astonishing depth of flavour coming from cow foot and tripe. If Kate’s Cafe rules the East, and Sweet Handz the North, then it’s Asafo flying the flag for Ghana in the South.
There are two ways to experience the might of Norbury’s Charsi Karahi. The first — the amateur way — is as a sit down restaurant of outstanding Peshawari grills and karahis, everything made fresh and cooked to order by a chef as serenely self-assured as 40 Maltby Street’s Stephen Williams. The second — the go big or go home way — requires some advance notice and a posse of lamb lovers ready to demolish the dum pukht of slow cooked mutton steamed with a sealant of dough, or the whole lamb sajji, which is served resembling a plaster cast of a Pompeii victim, stuffed with rice and a steal at £200 a lamb (plus £30 “corkage” — lambage? — to eat in). Assuming most people are posse-less, make sure there’s enough people to try the mixed grill, in which, unusually, chicken wings are the highlight: tender, spicy, charred; everything wings promise and never are. Or the wreta, chops of mutton weighty with marrow that can be pushed out onto small canoes of naan. Chapli kebabs are exceptional versions — loosely minced, pillow soft and juicy, with coarsely chopped tomato — every bit the equal of Namak Mandi’s, while the eponymous lamb charsi karahi is mildly but cleverly spiced. In a major concession to vegetarianism, the charsi karahi can also be ordered with chicken instead of lamb.
Italo could so easily be just another middle-class convenience store selling high quality produce unattainable to half the people who live nearby. What it actually is is something much more radical than that: a deli which is entirely subservient to the needs of the close-knit, mixed-economy community of Bonnington Square. There’s a bohemian aspect to Charlie Boxer’s deli, started 10 years ago with friend Luigi Di Lieto (of the family who run the equally excellent Di Lieto) that could veer too much towards luvviness if it wasn’t for the generosity, a place where the staff seem to know every customer’s name and vice versa, where the food has no genre except “stuff you want to eat”, and where there’s never too little parmesan dusted over a plate of pasta. Breakfasts are full Englishes with Italian accents — a Tuscan sausage here, cheesy polenta there, an egg and bacon bap but it’s pancetta on panuozzo, but elsewhere expect to see unpretentious cooking of the Arabella school, like pease pudding, chicken soups, haggis on toast, meatloaf. Don’t leave without a copy of the charming Italo booklet which sums up its spirit, documenting new produce, community activities, and services for hire.
If Western breakfasts were any good then nutritionists wouldn’t have to remind people to stop skipping them all the time. Of course there is a place for a fry up, for that rare perfect croissant, but otherwise Asia has Europe bang to rights in the “things people actually want to eat in the morning” stakes. One of the great world breakfasts is halwa poori, a dish that for Desi-tongues has the Proustian force of a thousand madeleines. The key is the interplay of four simple and perfect parts, all of which Karachi Cuisine in Norbury nails: a soothing, spicy chana, a potato curry medicinal with turmeric and fennel seeds, ambrosial semolina halwa, sweet and sandy with ghee and sugar, and pneumatic tissues of poori, slightly crisp and covered in a thin film of oil. One portion, with a spiced omelette or half fried eggs and a cup of Pakistani chai on the side and that’s enough food until dinner. Karachi Cuisine only does halwa puri on weekends until 2pm, but outside of that it’s an offal specialist. Try the kata-kat at dinner, a spicy dish of chopped brain, heart, kidney and testicles that is quite literally nose to tail eating.
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El Rancho De Lalo London
Once upon a time, before Brixton Village, before Pop Brixton, before Franco Manca and Honest Burgers, there was a small stand outside Las Americas Butchers selling hot and fluffy corn arepas fresh off the griddle with just a lick of salty butter for accompaniment. It was one of the great London street food vendors. That stretch of road was bought by Mike Ashley and is now a Sports Direct. While Brixton has become a “foodie” mecca, it hasn’t fully reckoned with those left behind. One of the few Colombian restaurants in the arcade still left from before its regeneration is El Rancho del Lalo, where empanadas are dense as bricks, stuffed to bursting with strands of spiced pork and fried to order so the casing satisfyingly cracks and spills out its contents. An excellent rendition of the Colombian national dish ‘bandeja paisa’ comes as an enormous platter of meat and protein, including standout crispy chicharron and kidney bean stew. The gentrification continues apace, but El Rancho still outflanks units selling food at twice the price.
Casa Mofongo Bar Restaurant
There’s a scene in Seinfeld where Jerry asserts that ‘salsa’ is the number one condiment in America simply because everyone loves saying the word “salsa”. Folding one’s mouth around the word “mofongo” is a similar delight, and many food lovers’ introduction to this Puerto Rican/Dominican speciality is Guy Fieri’s iconic review of Benny’s Seafood, in which he repeats the word “mofongo” with various emotions and voices: incredulous (moWHATo? moFONgo??), existential crisis (what does mofongo MEAN?) excitement, sotto voce conspiratorial whisper, and finally, acceptance (“mofongo is mofongo”) — declaring it “off the hook” and “legit”. London’s Flavortown is located in Loughborough Junction, in true south London style between a fake Morley’s simply called MMM and a vape shop. Casa Mofongo makes this sandcastle of smashed unripe plantain and chicharron in the Dominican mode: dry, with salty cheese melted on top and fatty pork on the side, the plantain itself absolutely honking of enough garlic to appease those who double the garlic in any recipe. Outside of the mofongo there are plenty of rarely seen Dominican stews, as well as a pica pollo up there with La Barra’s: golden fried chicken, chicharron, and bofes (dried lungs).
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