I found myself in Shoreditch ahead of a gig last night with an hour to kill, and a stomach to fill. The universe clearly detected this, and a picture was placed in front of me on Instagram that made my decision quite simple.
I set to finding the vendor, Black Bear Burger – you’ll find them upstairs at Boxpark, by the outside area on the Shoreditch High Street Station side.
Here’s what they had available
I ordered myself the Brisket Burger and a portion of nuggets, and took a seat outside while I waited for them to make my order. The burger was offered to me as medium, and I gladly agreed to that. There was an abundance of seating space up there, and a view out over a busy, bustling part of the area.
My radio buzzer went off after 5 minutes or so, and I went to collect my food. Both the burger and the nuggets looked the business.
I started with the nuggets. These were little chunks of chicken breast, in a wonderfully crunchy buttermilk coating that was well seasoned, and apparently still subject to regular tweaks to improve it as they go along. If they get any better they will be getting towards being one of my favourite side dishes going, and at £5 they are an absolute bargain. The buffalo sauce was superb – based on Frank’s buffalo sauce, and mixed with mayo. The blue cheese dip was only so-so, that could handle being a lot blue cheesier in my view, but then I am a sucker for a strong, sharp blue cheese so maybe others would prefer it’s subtle tone.
The burger was very good indeed too – super juicy, and the slab of brisket on top was incredibly tender, easily pulling apart when I tugged an edge. The combination of quite a fatty patty and this moist brisket made the addition of the pickled red onions very necessary. The American cheese in there was fully melted, and the garlic mayo added to the luxurious, indulgent tone of the burger. It maybe was a little too indulgent on that note for some palates – the onion fought bravely alongside the other ingredients to create the balance you want from a great burger, but I’d imagine some might find it a bit rich. The seeded bun held together very well considering the content of the sandwich, and allowed the contents to speak for themselves without adding loads of sweetness as some buns do. The burger patty itself was decent, and served medium as promised. It didn’t, however, quite have that mouthgasm effect that my absolute favourite burgers have delivered, I’m not sure if that’s the beef they use or the degree to which they seasoned it or what.
That, however, is nitpicking. This was a really very enjoyable meal. Served fast, by friendly staff. Very reasonably priced indeed. Tasty, attractive, and it filled me up for the night.
I will happily be back here to try their other burger out, and ordering plenty more of those excellent nuggets.
My old flatmate ThePetebox texted me a while ago with a ridiculous, but appealing, idea. Go out into London, and sample 3 of the finest burgers around, each time choosing a winner. Do this a bunch of times, then you do the winners in 3’s, down to a grand final, thus working out the best of the best of the best.
We’ve faffed for a few months, but finally made the leap. Meeting up at Patty & Bun in Soho after Pete had bizarrely been teaching Iain Duncan-Smith to beatbox on Radio 2, we had a loose plan involving Lucky Chip and A N Other, which we hadn’t quite worked out yet.
So, to business. The rules of engagement are simple – 3 burgers, not necessarily the same burgers, just the one that we think sounds the best or that is their signature, or that we know to be kick-ass. For me at Patty & Bun, that’s the Jose Jose – in my opinion the finest burger that is permanently on a menu in London.
We ordered, and they were with us in literally a couple of minutes. As always, opening them was a risky business if you weren’t careful, due to the very messy nature of the burger. But it was as glorious as every other time I’ve had one – sweet, spicy sobrassada chorizo relish mixing with smoky mayonnaise and ketchup, the beef perfectly medium-rare (as they’d advised it would be unless we wanted it done longer) and seasoned just right, the springy, light brioche bun holding together like a champ (especially impressive given how sloppy a sandwich this is). But what I’ve come to realise with this one is that the masterstroke is the pickled onions – the acidity of these cuts through the sauces just enough to stop it being sickly, a crucial note in a symphonic burger. We were off to a flying start. The 2 burgers, service and a donation to a charity that was included and explained to us came in at £21.38.
Patty & Bun – Jose Jose Burger – 9/10
After some consideration about where to head next, we decided to include Tommi’s Burger Joint, which is a relatively new addition to the Soho area. I’d been to the Mayfair joint some time ago, and been impressed, but this was only my 2nd crack of the whip. We both ordered cheeseburgers (which come medium), and a pot of chipotle mayo. The price was a very impressively cheap £12.50 for everything. The burgers arrived quickly, wrapped quite similarly to Patty & Bun’s, yet somehow looking nothing like as appealing due to poor branding and presentation. We unwrapped, and being honest they didn’t excite – they looked a bit dry, dull, and overdone. I popped a big blob of chipotle mayo in there and chowed down.
The first couple of bites were a let-down, but once I hit the chipotle mayo, ketchup and so on, it took on an extra dimension – the chipotle mayo in particular was very tasty. However, it was far from as good a burger as I’d remembered from my first trip – the patty is quite thin, I think the burger was marginally overdone, and not as tasty meat as I recalled it having – also Pete mentioned his was a tad gristly. It wasn’t bad – indeed, for £6.25 it is incredible value for central London. But after the Jose Jose this seemed very pedestrian.
Tommi’s Burger Joint – Burger with cheese and chipotle mayo – 6/10
We took a small interlude here to grab an excellent coffee from Soho Bikes
Beef patty, smoked bacon, roasted jalapeños, blue cheese & aioli. I’ve had this burger 3 times now, and it’s a good un for sure. Chatting to our server, it turns out they press the blue cheese (a lovely, salty, almost spicy cheese) into a disc which melts atop the burger. The aioli is smeared generously over the bottom half of the bun and brings plenty of garlic to the party, the smoked bacon is excellent and cooked as it needs to be in a burger – just crispy enough to be easy to break through, but not a salty pork biscuit. The occasional jalapeño hit is very welcome amongst this all.
The combination here is delicious, but it did bring to mind the clever move of the Jose Jose – those pickled onions.
The melted cheese and aioli, and a quite fatty patty (which is a good thing for flavour, but still), make for a somewhat oily, greasy mouth-feel after a few bites. It could probably use something in there to cut through this – pickled chillies might do this, but the roasted jalapeños here didn’t, even while being very tasty. It’s nit-picking – I really like this burger. But it’s something I feel could improve it. The burgers were £9.50 each, no service as we ordered and paid at the bar.
Lucky Chip – El Chappo – 8/10
So, a clear winner in Patty & Bun’s Jose Jose, despite my affection for the El Chappo. Tommi’s disappointed this time out, although I’m sure I will give them another crack – the price is excellent and the first time I went it was a corker, so this could be an aberration. On to the next trio!
————————————————————————————————— Remaining heats in this stage (subject to change!)
Honest Burgers, Hawksmoor, Burger & Beyond
There’s a few obvious contenders I’ve left out because they are only available on specific days that don’t really suit my schedule, and also some well known brands that I feel don’t deserve comparison with most of these. But feel free to leave suggestions for wild cards in the comments, as I suspect I’ve missed a few out!
I’ve never reviewed MEATmission or MEATliquor, as I felt that my involvement with their now defunct MEATtransMISSION radio show made it a bit of a conflict of interests, but now that I don’t have that issue, my first time casting judgement on one of the big hitters of the London burger game.
I managed to sneak in between a pair of gigs on a Friday night, and it was a simple task for me to choose the sustenance from the offerings available – piggies in blankets and the XXXmas Burger, as well as one of their excellent sazeracs. As the meal was an in-and-out hit job, so too will this review be a lot shorter than the others I’ve done so far.
The piggies in blankets were absolutely bloody lovely. Fantastically juicy and meaty, with a wonderful flavour that danced around savoury with a hint of sweetness in there, you could tell that these chipolatas are made from great pork. The bacon they were wrapped in was as crispy as you’d hope, giving the right combination of textures as you bit through that and into the softer sausage they encased. A little blob of mustard to add heat made for a genuinely delicious side dish.
The main event didn’t massively impress me at first glance. The turkey is thin slices kind of folded up in there, going against the grain in the Christmas burger which seems to favour a big lump of, breaded, deep-fried breast.
But if we’re looking at this logically, MEATmission’s approach is more “authentic” – a lot more people will have thin slices on their Christmas dinner plates than breaded, deep fried pieces! The top filling is the rather clever bacon disk they make – basically smushing and cooking a load of bacon so it fits in the bun better than the more normal slices people would use. The stuffing crumbles were a little dry I thought, presumably because of being smaller pieces, but a good touch – stuffing is quintessentially Christmassy for me. The Old Spot patty was excellent, with the cranberry adding that traditional sweetness aspect of a Christmas sarnie. The turkey was super juicy, a result of it being sort of “basted” with the gravy it mentions. An extra tray of gravy to the side to dip this in, a la Blacklock, now that would have been fantastic.
It was a really proper feast of flavours and textures – the turkey was so juicy, savoury and succulent in particular. I demolished the thing in no time at all, and it really did evoke the season to my palate. As I mentioned, stuffing is a big Christmas food at my home – sage & onion being my favourite. A lot of these specials seem to use that as the vehicle for pork, but personally I’ve never really gone down the meaty stuffing route, so this was a welcome choice for me and my tastes. All in all, a success, if not quite at the level of Blacklock or Mac & Wild.
I’ve got a lot of affection for Honest Burger, and regularly mention them when asked about my favourite burgers in London. I visited their original Brixton site when they only had one outlet, and have been impressed by the speed they went from 1, to 2, to 16 restaurants in under 5 years. What I’ve been less impressed by is the negative impact this has seemingly had on the consistency and standards across the group. Today, sadly, falls into that 2nd category.
At 11.05am this morning, while taking care of a bit of life admin, an email pinged through. And I was faced with this glorious sight…
Now, this is a sexy looking sandwich. My Facebook post received dozens of salivating replies from similarly smitten fatties. Check the description
“From the bottom to the top we kick off with homemade walnut pesto, add a 30 day dry-aged beef patty, bubbling hot smoked mozzarella, homemade marinara sauce, crispy pancetta and finish with a twist of black pepper.”
The phrase “get in my belly” has never been more apt. My mind was made up – dinner was at Honest. A few text messages later and it was arranged. 6.30pm at Honest Burgers’ Bank restaurant.
Now seems a decent time to clear the air. I’ve had very mixed experiences with Honest since they commenced their rapid expansion. When they nail it, they are in the very top tier. Their Tribute burger, when done right, is superb, a cheese & bacon burger of rare brilliance. But a few too many times things have not quite been right; burgers overdone, underdone, oversalted, fries burnt, one diner’s bun toasted, the other not, and so on. But when they have got their ducks in a row, it’s good enough that I take this chance on being disappointed. To their immense credit Honest once even found a tweet to a friend where I made some very mild criticism of a burger there and gave me a free meal on my next visit, and their staff are always friendly and attentive, and they have never had a problem with fixing things if they are wrong.
Back to today.
Me and my friend Charlotte arrived exactly at the same time, 6.30pm on the dot. Londoners, it really isn’t that hard. We always do it, and as a result we are always the first people by ages in our groups. How do people find it so hard to be punctual? Anyway, I digress. The restaurant follows their usual wooden and steel design, pretty basic but comfortably so, and we went downstairs to our booth, the restaurant having maybe only a dozen diners across 2 floors, which surprised me somewhat at that time midweek in The City.
Charlotte ordered the Tribute on my recommendation, I ordered the Pizza Burger, a bit of bacon ketchup to help the party along, a beer for the lady, and for me a very nicely presented bottomless supply of sparkling water, a bargain at just a quid (this year it’s my 4th Sober October in a row).
The burgers arrived, and first impressions weren’t great. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to look like the advert, but I expected something vaguely close. I was expecting a messy beast of a burger, cheese oozing out of the sides, gravity pulling it down the sides, marinara sauce dribbling alongside the molten trails of smoked mozzarella, something more Patty & Bun than Honest’s usual style.
What I got was this.
Now, this is where I have to be honest with myself, and you (no pun intended).
I should asked whether the mozzarella should be melted. Smoked mozzarella is a funny beast, very different to regular mozzarella balls, or the grated hard stuff you get in supermarkets for pizzas etc. But tbh, I just wanted to eat. And I guess part of me was thinking “I want to judge what they serve me, not what they serve me 2nd time round”. Also, I had managed to completely forget that they’d claimed it to be “bubbling hot smoked mozzarella”, as I was engrossed in a typically in-depth conversation with Charlotte.
I’d asked for medium-rare, and this is how it came – I’d say this is on the rarer side of things right in the centre, but nothing I’m offended by, and I’d rather this than overdone.
You can also see that the mozzarella is a long way away from being melted – it was also cold. And again, I should have just said something – I had ample opportunity, as we were asked 3 times if everything was ok, an unusual situation. I’m not sure if this was overzealous staff (one came before we’d taken a bite, and again after, then another staff member a few minutes later), whether it was because they’d noticed me taking pics and were getting paranoid, whether it was because they weren’t confident in the chefs, or what. But either way, it’s on me that I didn’t send it back, which I should have done, as it wasn’t what was advertised and what had brought me out for the night.
The burger patty itself was typically flavoursome, the strong, savoury beefiness that I’ve come to expect from Honest, seasoned just right. I would say that next time I’d order it medium, but given that I’ve had them come well-done when I’ve ordered medium-rare, I don’t really know how to offset that level of erratic production. It’s really strange, as these guys are superb maybe 70-80% of the time – I guess it’s just a numbers game, there’s only so many staff who are reliably able to hit the mark every single time, and when you expand this quickly it must be tricky to maintain the highest standards. But they risk becoming the next Byron if they don’t arrest this trend – well known, but a 2nd division player. Byron is just a bit average – in Honest’s case, they have brilliance in their locker, but too often slip up.
The bun held together well and was pretty neutral taste-wise – it didn’t fight against the flavours it was holding, although the walnut pesto offered nothing much that I noticed (I literally forgot it was in there until Charlotte asked what that was like!). The marinara was pleasant, and had a zesty tang to it. But there was nowhere near enough of it – much had absorbed into the top half of the bun, and I was expecting it to be a messy beast to handle. Look at the photo at the top – you know full well that if you squeezed that and bit down on to it, the marinara is going all over the shop, and that’s what I thought I’d signed up for! Same with the pesto – it’s spilling all over the shop in the advert! The pancetta was great – I really liked that – very thin, with a lovely crispy crunch, and I think that makes for an excellent substitute for bacon just as a general observation, if done this way. Sometimes bacon for burgers is underdone and the fat becomes something of an obstacle to be chewed through.
The rosemary fries were outstanding, as they almost always are. They seemed ever so slightly thicker than I remembered, although that might be a trick of my memory. Cooked to perfection, cripsy outside, fluffy inside, just the right amount of salt, a decent kick from the rosemary. And the bacon ketchup… the sooner Honest start selling that stuff, the better! Amazing. This stuff is actually possibly even better – highly recommend it, I picked up a jar at home in the Peak District last Christmas, yet turns out it’s made up the road from me in East London!
I demolished every last crumb in my dish, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this was a crushing disappointment. I was entering tonight thinking that this was a possibility for my favourite ever burger, and I got… that.
It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t particularly good either. This has happened before at Honest actually – at Spitalfields I had a special (I forget which), and again was bitterly disappointed. I should just order the Tribute, it’s genuinely superb, but they keep creating these Instagram-friendly beasts, and I keep falling for it!
A friend who works for Street Feast says she’s had it, it looked nothing like mine, and was delicious – and that may well be true, but then just adds weight to the other issue, the wild inconsistency from kitchen to kitchen. Hopefully they can address this, as Honest have it in them to be the top burger joint in London.
So, one of the fringe benefits of my job as a DJ is having my days relatively free. I obviously still have Stuff To Do, but the deadlines are often quite nebulous and regularly have to be self-imposed. As such, when I heard earlier this week that legendary LA Burger chain In-N-Out Burger were coming to London for a 4-hour pop-up, I was pretty sure that I would be there to check it out.
In classic style I managed to accidentally get a little drunk at the gig I had the night before, but mercifully, the texts I sent to various friends looking for the next pitstop got negative responses, and no further drinking, dancing or debauchery took place. Although I did get my ass handed to me by my flatmate when I tried to play him on the new FIFA 17 demo before bed.
The plus side of this poor planning was that I was goddamned starving on Wednesday morning. Coffee was purchased from my favourite spot (Pavilion Cafe, by the lake in Victoria Park), and then my burger buddy for the day arrived (the wonderful Ben Gomori of Turned On Podcast, who’s made an appearance in my Mixtape Monday series). Off we trotted, heading westwards to Swiss Cottage, where the pop-up was taking place.
When we popped back above ground and wandered down towards the venue, we were met with a substantial, but not intimidating, queue. We took our place at the back of the line after stocking up on the essentials for a potentially long wait, and settled in. Arrival time was 10.15am or thereabouts, and the pop-up was scheduled for 11am-3pm. The venue itself seemed to be fairly large inside from what we could see, although strangely little effort had been made to transform the front-end, just one banner in the window, and various In-N-Out staff members in their distinctive uniform milling about, and then a counter inside that looked like some effort had gone on making it pretty close to how they presumably are stateside.
The queue grew steadily as we waited patiently. Various baffled passers-by took photos and asked questions, numerous reporters and journalists came by to ask questions or livestream the thronging crowd of knobheads waiting hours in line for “fast” food.
I made my first appearance within Vice and marked it with a truly awful pun. Getty interviewed me on video, I have no idea if that was used, and frankly I hope I never find out [Edit – thanks to u/RichardJohn over on Reddit for finding this, turns out they not only used me, but I was the only interviewee used! http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/license/609839490%5D.
Wristbands were handed out, enabling people to chip off and come back at their allotted hourly slot – I was given gold, the 12-1 slot. The burger tab on these wristbands made it pretty obvious that we could only order one burger each, a mortifying realisation after having skipped breakfast.
So far, I’ve said an awful lot without getting to the point. Well, here we go. After 2 or so hours of waiting, we approached the front of the line, and were greeted warmly by Eric, a genuine American fella. He was fantastic, and superbly dealt with the multiple late-comers who tried to blag their way in to get a shirt without waiting in line like the rest of us losers.
This isn’t Eric
Neither is this
In we went, and order we did. Disappointingly, the only side available was crisps. I want to thank my friends on Facebook for asking me why a mere 91838172581 times. Apparently it was something to do with not being able to ship the fries over or get them right in the UK or something, but whatever it was, it was very disappointing to have ready salted crisps as the accompaniment to a burger you’ve queued several hours to sample. The prices were cheap as chips, ironically enough, £3 for a double double (two beef patties, two slices of cheese) which I had “animal style” (basically with a quite sweet sauce with grilled onions), a diet coke, and those bloody crisps. I was given a key-ring and a sticker, and decided to fork out £3 for one of their t-shirts, so the whole lot clocked in at a very reasonable £8! So clearly, this wasn’t an exercise in making money…
So down we sat with our drinks and goodies, and waited for the food to come to our table. One thing I was struck by was just how many empty seats there were given how slow the queue had been moving. They were clearly managing the numbers very closely to avoid any snafus with the service I guess. The food took maybe 5 minutes or so to arrive, with Ben’s being the first to land.
I have to say, the burgers looked excellent when they arrived at the table.
And now we get to the important stuff. The burger – yes, it was good. If I had to try and describe it in a very simple way – it’s like the best possible Big Mac you could make. Does it get a place in my top 10. Nope. Was it worth waiting 2-3 hours for? Not really, if I’m brutally honest.
But it was very good. I would happily eat these on the go at the right price, the sauce, the beefburgers, the cheese and the bun were all lovely and complemented each other well. The salad – well, the lettuce was fine, but the tomato was almost ice cold. It wasn’t a huge issue, but it definitely detracted from the burger in the final judgement. The animal sauce was really enjoyable – I may well have a crack at making something like that at home, having discovered various websites who think they have the recipe worked out.
I’m glad I made the decision to check it out, as I’ve never previously really “got” this type of burger – I prefer thicker patties with them nicely pink in the middle. These thinner patties make for a totally different mouth-feel than the “gourmet” style big burgers that dominate London’s burger restaurants – often they are overdone to the point of being unpalatable meat-biscuits, but as you can see in the photo above, these are done to perfection, allowing them to remain moist and juicy, something which the melted American cheese and Animal Sauce only serves to amplify. Even as I write this out now, I’m starting to crave another one, so maybe they did make more of an impression on me than I realised – or maybe its just because I skipped breakfast again. The crisps/fries debacle… the less said the better, I don’t really understand how they can go to all the effort of this and not be able to put a proper side on the menu. And thank you to my friends for hammering that point home, relentlessly.
In truth, it’s a little unfair of me to compare In-N-Out to the top-end London “gourmet” burger places – its niche is as a really good, but really cheap, burger. A kick-ass McDonald’s. Five Guys occupies this niche in the USA too, yet is inexplicably (and totally unjustifiably) priced as a premium burger in the UK. £3 for a Double Double, animal style… now that’s phenomenal value. If they opened up over here permanently, with prices in that ballpark, they would absolutely clean up, and rightly so. If they were a tenner… just don’t bother, please. But seeing as the last pop-up was in 2012 (4 year cycle, this year in a Brazilian restaurant… I’m guessing that in 2020 they will take over a sushi restaurant…), its reasonable to guess that they are in no rush to head over to the UK – after all, they are still limited to relatively few states in the USA, which in itself probably plays its part in creating the aura that creates such daft queues as the one I was part of yesterday.