Friday, 14 May 2010
The Meatwagon at the Florence, Herne Hill
It was my friend Helen Graves who first brought the mysterious Yianni to the attention of London burger fans. An odd little enterprise, he travels across America for most of the year, collecting recipes, tips and traditions from as many different independent food outlets as he can, and then returns to the UK and attempts to recreate them, not from a permanent shop or even a hired kitchen, but a rickety looking mobile hotplate on wheels called the Meatwagon. The unpredictable nature and location of his appearances, not to mention the slavering reports from those lucky enough to try his Bobcat burger (Bobcat Bite, New Mexico) or the bacon cheeseburger (Hodad's, California) have created a kind of cultish following, one I'm sure that is completely deliberately encouraged by Yianni.
So it was with great anticipation that I arrived at the Florence pub in Herne Hill last night, where a hole had been cut in the garden fencing to allow the hatch from Yianni's van to slot in so neatly it's almost as if he was a permanent feature. Watching Yianni working with a critical eye was the pub dog Barksdale, who seemed to do very well that evening stealing scraps of hot dog and burger from generous drunken revellers. In the end, in fact, the dog did better than most people, as barely an hour after I arrived at 6pm Yianni had already run out of hotdogs. And bacon. And chilli. And then finally, a good hour and a half later, just as we'd managed to extract three plain cheeseburgers and a couple of Philly cheese steaks, those ran out too, leaving a good twenty or thirty people in the queue behind us hungry and really rather annoyed. I slunk past the fuming queue with my bounty and settled quietly in a corner of the pub to see what all the fuss was about.
Heavens above, they were good. Really, really good. Smashed beef patties soaked in slimy Kraft cheese sat inside golden, slightly toasted, soft buns criss-crossed with French's mustard and ketchup. The only token salad was a small handful of chopped iceberg to provide a bit of extra texture, just like you'd find in the States. The authenticity, in fact, was stunning - close your eyes against the grey British sky and you could have been in California, from the water steamed around the hotplate just before serving, to the lovely thick helping of American cheese. I didn't think any burger in the world could have been worth such fuss and wait, but this definitely was, and more. I was instantly and fiercely smitten.
The Philly cheese steak was, if not quite up there next to the burger, very confidently and competently constructed. The moist strips of steak were tender and tasty, and chopped fried vegetables were bound together with yet more lovely yellow "cheese". I've never been to Philadelphia, or for that matter ever had a Philly cheese steak from anywhere else, but given the detail lavished on the burger I'm willing to bet this is a pretty good recreation. It too disappeared in seconds, amongst a chorus of coos and moans.
Given the bother and wait and the fact that most of our original order was substituted, I was definitely not in the mood for charity, and that the Meatwagon burgers completely won me over with the first bite is a testament to Yianni's monumental achievement. His uncompromising attitude towards American tradition coupled with his frustrating stock management just, if anything, make the whole experience that much more authentic - even if the angry groups gathered around his rickety stall as the last Philly steaks went out may not have appreciated it. They can complain all they like, but nobody knows better than Yianni that they will be back, again and again and again. And by God, so will I.
Find out when the Meatwagon is appearing next by visiting his website.