By David Heimowitz
Guidebook after guidebook will tell you to come to London and try traditional English foods like mashed potatoes, boiled sausages and even pies filled with mashed potatoes and boiled sausages. The authors of the guidebooks sell stale tips, appropriate for their target market, sweet and lovable grandmothers. Thankfully you have sifted through the rubbish and made it to expert sources like this blog! Below, you’ll find 8 cheap eats in East London that give you a more authentic taste of this great city.
London is the world’s most global city and the food culture reflects this. The globalization of London is a trend that has accelerated in the last two decades and shows no signs of slowing down. In 1987, 18% of Londoners were from abroad, now that number is greater than 33%. English is not the first language for 22% of all Londoners, nor is the first language for an astounding 42% of the children in London.
The proportion of London that is ‘White British’ fell from 58% in 2001 to 45% in 2011, and old-time Londoners averse to the changing make-up of the city contributed to a ‘white flight’ to the more traditional British countryside. These people took their boiled potato culinary culture with them, and what remained in their wake is something much more vibrant. The world is filled with no shortage of reasons to leave this and that god-forsaken country. Thanks to civil war, extreme poverty, famine brought on by natural disaster – not to mention religious, racial and homophobic persecution, we’ve been blessed with the ethnic food paradise that is modern London.
Know Before You Go
–In most parts of the world, a restaurant busy with locals is an indicator of quality. That holds less true in London (see reference to boiled potato culture above). Try to take a careful look at the clientele and guess if they’re the type who are there for the food or for the social cache of the establishment. –Londoners have a mild obsession with perceptions of class (poshness), so price is not necessarily an indicator of quality. It is tough to find a great meal for under £10, but a restaurant where mains are selling for more than £20 is often more concerned with the décor than the quality or authenticity of the food.
–London, like any cosmopolitan city, is filled with watered down versions of every cuisine. When you see an Indian or Lebanese restaurant here, it may not be good. Have a careful look who is eating inside. –The food markets of London are not mentioned here, but are definitely worthy of a blog post of their own.
Here are some of my top picks for a meal under £15 in East London
Tayyabs – This restaurant is an absolute must. Prioritize spending time here over Buckingham Palace. The BYOB institution is a 3-story mecca of grilled lamb chops that seats over 300. The waiters will be rude to you because frankly, they don’t need your repeat business. Friday and Saturday nights will have line-ups going out the door. Needoo Grill around the corner and Lahore Kebab House on Commercial Road are a close second best for food quality, but less ‘experiential’. They are both also BYOB.
Kolapata – Foodies of London have discovered Pakistani cuisine and Tayyabs is no secret, attracting crowds from all over town. 500 metres away on Whitechapel Road, Kolapata serves a mostly local, Bengali crowd in a less polished environment. The food is fresh and the servers happy to explain what you’re ordering. This is also the cheapest spot on the list. Try the Chotpoti.
Dishoom – The food at Dishoom is authentic and fresh like nowhere else in town, but is likely the most expensive on this list. The food is modeled after the Parsi cafes of Mumbai, and is totally different than the typical English neighbourhood curry house. There is also a branch in Covent Garden.
Turkish / Middle Eastern
Tas Firin – Walk through the unassuming entrance on the corner and you’ll stumble into a packed, 50-seater Turkish Mangal restaurant with a fresh grill and clay, wood-heated oven. A fat man with Kemalist mustache sits in front of counter manning the charcoal BBQ, thin man with mustache handles the oven. Your server may or may not have a mustache. Try the grilled fish and a Pide (Turkish Pizza).
Zengi – This Iraqi Kurdish family runs a pan middle-eastern kitchen of exceptional quality. The portions are absurdly generous and everything including the bread is made in house. Service is exceptional, try sit downstairs for a nicer ambience.
Mangal Ocakbasi – Hackney is one of the hubs of London’s Turkish immigrant community. The hipsters now too cool for Shoreditch have moved in and there are some great live music venues abound, but before you go to a show you must eat here. A similar menu to Tas Firin above, but more fun and chaotic, also it’s a BYOB with no corkage charge.
Song Que – Before it became hip, Shoreditch and Hoxton were the hubs of the Vietnamese community in London. Song Que is infamous for long waits, terrible service, dirty bathrooms and spectacular fresh food. One can order noodle or rice dishes for one, or traditional dishes to share.
Lao Di Fang – Hidden between Liverpool Street Station and Brick Lane, Lao Di Fang (My Old Place) is a hit among students and young financiers from mainland China. The food is quite different from the Cantonese style far more common in Chinatowns–both in London and across North America. Beware, the staff speak limited English and the menu is incorrectly translated; you won’t enjoy this if you’re a Chinese food virgin. Order the GanBian Siji Dou (dry-fried green beans).