Cheap ethnic eats in London
Marinated pork kebabs with peppers, onions and mushrooms. (Matthew Mead/Associated Press)
London’s diverse population hails from every corner of the globe, making it possible to eat a different style of cuisine nearly every day of the year. All across the English capital, restaurants offer food every bit as authentic as what you might find on a backstreet in Ho Chi Minh or in a corner stall in Oaxaca – and many of them are incredibly affordable too, with most meals costing less than £30.
With Burma on everyone’s travel hotlist once again, get a flavour of what is in store at Mandalay on the slightly grittier end of the Edgware Road. This friendly restaurant run by the Ally family has been a favourite of both expats and curious diners for almost 20 years. A sort of unofficial Burmese embassy, it is the only place in London where you can get a taste of Burmese cuisine, which draws its flavours from Chinese, Indian and Thai influences. Try the Calabash fritters, a type of vegetable served with dipping sauce, and the hearty, country-style lamb curry, seit-tha nat.
When it opened two years ago in the heart of Soho, Koya was a runaway success. Queues formed outside its door and its communal benches were reassuringly crammed with Japanese diners eager to get a taste of home. Koya’s speciality is thick, white udon noodles, made with specially imported Japanese wheat flour. The noodles are served hot, in bowls of steaming broth, or cold, in a bowl with dipping sauce. There are also a handful of small plates like the stand-out braised pork belly with cider. With a no-booking policy, a long wait is inevitable, but it is worth it.
One of the East End’s main arteries, the sinuous Kingsland Road has long been a destination for those in search of authentic Vietnamese in the capital. Many are devotees of Song Que’s clattering dining room, which consistently serves up some of the best. At the centre of its bewilderingly long menu is pho, traditional Vietnamese noodle soup served with a choice of beef, where the integral ingredient is a broth simmered slowly for many hours to develop its rich, deep flavour. Start with the spicy fried soft shell crab and juicy morsels of grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves.
Not far away, lovers of Indian and Pakistani food know to ignore the well touristed spots on Columbia Road and Brick Lane (the capital’s curry alley) and head further east to Tayyabs, on Fieldgate Street. In recent years, word has spread and Tayyabs’ popularity has snowballed -- now the maitre d’ wears a futuristic looking headset and the queues stretch onto the street on a nightly basis. It is all a far cry from its origins 30 years ago, when it was opened by an immigrant from Lahore who missed the real taste of home. Its legions of fans come for the outstanding and inexpensive Punjabi dishes, such as traditional lamb chops marinated in a secret blend of spices and served sizzling at the table, and lively karahis (curries) named after the traditional pots they are cooked in.
Starting in the early evening, a line forms out the door of Alounak (44 Westbourne Grove, W2; 020-7229-0416), a buzzing spot that is a West London institution and serves authentic old-school Persian food complete with a kitschy smoking fountain in the centre. Order starters like the mirza ghassemi (smoked aubergine with garlic and tomato), which is severed with high mounds of fresh herbs like tarragon and mint, as well as cooked-to-order breads, fresh from the oven. Then move on to the chelo (kebabs) -- lamb or chicken -- served with grilled onion and plate of fluffy rice. Diners can bring their own wine or order a cooling yoghurt drink instead.
Pubs offering Thai food are now a ubiquitous feature of London’s dining scene. But the Churchill Arms in Kensington was one of the very first to buck the trend. This old-school boozer dating from 1750 has an affable Irish landlord and an exterior festooned with hanging baskets filled with flowers. Inside, every available space is covered with memorabilia dedicated to Winston Churchill, whose parents were frequent customers. So far, so traditional. But tucked at the back of the pub is its Thai restaurant, where woks have been firing for more than 15 years. It is so popular the overspill of diners happily co-exists with pub regulars watching the football. Everyone comes for their fix of classics like kaeng gai curry and pad thai at decidedly un-Kensington prices.
Mexican street food came to the London masses with the opening of the lively and fun canteen-style Wahaca -- now with several branches across the capital including Covent Garden and Soho. This is the place to go for tasty renditions of street food classics like chicken tacos and marinated pork, as well as shrimp and scallop ceviche and more substantial plates like Mexican-style steak and burritos. Tequilas, mescal, well-made cocktails, traditional-style hibiscus water and a choice of Mexican beer can accompany all of the above.