The slight uphill gradient as you walk up Greville Street, away from Farringdon station, is not very steep, but on a warm day, walking at a good pace, it elicits a bead of sweat from my forehead.
It’s not exactly how many would imagine “relaxing on a day off” to be, but we are on a noble and worthy mission to find as much of London’s street food as we can over a workday. We have set off early enough to be among the hundreds of thousands of commuters who squeeze into trains and onto the tube every morning – but we know our programme for the day is slightly more enjoyable. The thought of our next stop fills me with anticipation: we are just one right-turn away from Leather Lane and its trove of food trucks, pop-up eateries and other hidden gems.
Our destination is Grill My Cheese, which, as the name suggests, has pretty much only one item on the menu, although in different variations – grilled cheese toasties. It’s the ultimate comfort food, it’s a staple in nearly everyone’s diet (especially if you’ve ever been an impoverished college student) – but will it translate into uber-cool street food? Heck, yes it will.
Aware of the food marathon awaiting us, we order the basic GMC, a glorious pair of sourdough bread slices oozing with the melted blend of four different cheeses, grilled right in front of us. The browned crust is crunchy but it reveals a soft, warm interior: as self-professed cheese lovers, we’re over the moon. Our only regret is not going for the best-seller on the menu, intriguingly called the “Baby got Mac”: in addition to the signature blend, it adds pulled pork, BBQ sauce and a generous helping of macaroni to create a masterpiece on the griddle. The person after us in the queue orders it, and suddenly the meaning of “food envy” is upon us: still, our classic GMC is perfect – and making a classic great speaks volumes of the ability of Nisha and Nishma, the two owners expertly running the place.
Grill My Cheese is just one of the many representations of the street-food renaissance London is enjoying lately. Whether it’s a reaction to the recession of recent years and its subsequent squeeze on wallets or just a regular trend in one of Europe’s most expensive cities, the last few years have seen an explosion of offerings catering to every taste and ticking every box in the foodie playbook. The growing popularity of cookery shows has infused Britons, and sophisticated Londoners in particular, with an appetite for exotic tastes, fresh ingredients and great presentation: add to this recipe the big portions and cheap pricetag, and street food was always going to be slam dunk in the capital.
Britain’s well-established immigrant population ensures every cuisine is represented in the city and this reflects in the offerings appearing in the street food scene: from Caribbean jerk chicken to Polish pierogi, the choice is endless and is enriched on an almost daily basis by the arrival of new starters. Our first port of call in the day, however, was as much an institution in the foodie world as it can be.
Luardos has been a stalwart of Londonite street food since as early as 2007, when people probably didn’t think it was cool to sell carnitas from a van and they looked at you like you were on the run from the cops. Or on drugs. Or possibly both. Since those early days, they guys at this eatery have been serving fresh, traditional Mexican street food at Whitecross Street Market, just off Old Street. A visit to their brightly coloured van (it comes in the hot pink and aqua green varieties) is rewarded by one of the finest burritos we ever ate this side of the Atlantic – it’s the only item on the menu and they truly mastered it. The tortilla is heaped with rice, black beans, salsa, sour cream, lettuce, cheese and a bunch of fresh coriander, with a choice of chicken, carnitas or beef (or a vegetarian option, but where’s the fun in that!) – the portions are generous, so we got ours split in two (it’s a marathon, not a sprint).
Colourful, crowded and noisy Whitecross Market is a great place for a quick bite, with many stalls selling everything from bulgogi steak sandwiches to southern Italian marzipan sweets. Among all the offerings of this veritable foodie heaven, Luardos stands apart – and not just because of its van’s garish colours. To the mild annoyance of nearby stalls, the queue of burrito lovers extends quite a distance and features a healthy mix of City businesspeople on their lunch break, Old Street start-up types and bearded hipsters from nearby Shoreditch.
Their fare – we went for the carnitas burrito – was definitely worth the wait, with the meat blending in perfectly with the remaining ingredients and the spicy sauce not overpowering the other tastes. The only negative wasn’t a negative at all – you just cannot eat a burrito in an elegant way!
All filled up on our Mexican and grilled cheese sandwich quota, there’s still plenty on offer for our foodie quest – including some much-needed sweet fix. Luckily, one of our favourite suppliers of sugary fare is on hand at the very end of Leather Lane. We have been to Crosstown Doughnuts in its brick-and-mortar main location in Soho and we have witnessed the creation of their signature products (not to mention their subsequent annihilation, via mouth), but it’s the first time we stop at one of their gazebos that are increasingly dotted around town. The selection is still as varied as at HQ – and it ain’t just boring ol’ glazed ones, no, these babies are made from sourdough and range from chilli chocolate to sea salt caramel banana, from crème brûleée to the mysterious lamnut flavour (a portmanteau of Lamington and coconut, FYI), there are enough varieties to keep you going for a while. We share a vanilla bean doughnut – and it is worth it: the sweet, flowery scent gives way to a soft, melt-in-your mouth texture that leaves you wanting for more. There is none of the too-sugary feel you experience elsewhere – this is doughnut heaven.
Adequately refilled, we make our way east, past the Old Spitalfields Market and into Brick Lane. Our next stop is a food truck parked in the grounds of the Old Truman’s Brewery, one of the fastest-growing street grub hotspot in town. Once the largest brewery in the world – it produced 400,000 barrels by the mid-19th century – the complex now hosts art galleries, shops and offices; the yard, however, is the gathering point for some food truck such as the splendidly-named Mother Clucker (fried chicken from a US Army ambulance FTW) and our destination, The Orange Buffalo.
Our fixation with chicken wings is, at times, slightly embarrassing: when discussing some of the greatest meals we’ve ever had, we feel compelled to include, in an illustrious company featuring truffle pici pasta in the Tuscan vineyards, fresh poke on the beach in Hawaii and Icelandic sushi, the original Buffalo hot wings from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY. Chicken wings may seem like a cheap, run-of-the-mill grub – but few things come close to the feeling of a burning-hot, feistily spicy wing making the air in front of your mouth hot enough to cough.
Having been to the Anchor Bar several times (we fly to Buffalo to see Birgitte’s aunt and uncle… or at least, that’s what our official story says), we are determined to find a decent substitute this side of the Ocean. We are warned against the hottest marinade sauce on the menu, so we opt for the second hottest – a choice we slightly regret, as they do not pack as strong a punch as we hoped. The wings are still good, though – not as tangy and slightly more buttery than the original ones, but we enjoy them.
As the day comes to an end and the rushing masses start heading back home after their day at work, we make our way to our final destination in our street-food marathon. We arrive at Exmouth Market as the sun is starting to set: the evening is still warm and, having clocked more than 20km since the start of the day, we still have enough of an appetite despite the feast we’ve enjoyed.
Having grown up and spent quite a few years in Italy, I learnt the value of pizza as the ultimate street food (at least in the Bel Paese). Before the arrival of the many options we enjoy today, a day out with friends would often feature the purchase of one (or more) wood-fired oven pizzas, served in their traditional cardboard box and consumed on a park bench or sitting precariously atop a moped. As we do the same at Pizza Pilgrims, the latest of a long line of pizza chains claiming to be the ultimate Italian original, the memories come rushing in: the scents of freshly-baked dough, melting mozzarella and tangy tomato sauce all waft in the air as we open the box and dig into the sliced pie.
We order a margherita – the classic, a good yardstick to establish the quality of a pizza; I can be extremely critical on this topic – is the dough thick enough? Too thick? Which cheese is used? How much? All these factors are discussed when having pizza with us… although we try to keep it down when we’re in company. The Pizza Pilgrims offering doesn’t disappoint and it scores well on all fronts, including the addition of ‘nduja, a fiendishly spicy Calabrian spreadable sausage, as an extra ingredient.
London offers countless options for food – too many for anyone to try them all, and changing on a daily basis. Tired but happy, with sore feet and full bellies, we bring our day’s worth of exploration to an end, joining the crowds heading back home. Behind us, the vibrant street food scene of the capital morphs, as the stalls and trucks we visited close and the pop-ups populating the night open.
THE WHO, WHERE & WHEN
- Grill My Cheese: Leather Lane Market, London EC1N 7RJ (UK). Tue-Fri 12pm-2pm. www.grillmycheese.co.uk
- Luardos: Pitch 39, Whitecross Street Market, London EC1Y 8JL (UK). Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm. www.luardos.co.uk
- Crosstown Doughnuts: 4 Broadwick St, London W1F 0DA (store). Mon-Fri 8am-10pm / Leather Lane Market, London EC1N 7TS (pop-up). Wed & Fri 8:30am-2pm. www.crosstowndoughnuts.com
- The Orange Buffalo: The Old Truman Brewery, Ely’s Yard, London E1 6QL (UK). Mon 12pm-3pm, Tue-Sun 12pm-8pm. www.theorangebuffalo.com
- Pizza Pilgrims: 15 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QD (UK). Min-Sat 11:30am-10:30pm, Sun 12pm-9:30pm. www.pizzapilgrims.co.uk