Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Honest Burgers, Brixton
Three or four years ago I used to work in Brixton, in a strange, bohemian loft-office above a furniture workshop on Saltoun Road. I liked that arrangement, at least for a while - the commute was just one bus from Battersea, meaning I could save a fortune on tube fares, and there were plenty of really interesting (if not always 100% safe) options for after-work drinking. What wasn't quite as easy, at that time, was lunch - there was a very worthy (and very expensive) organic cafe on Coldharbour Lane which did a BLT sandwich for the best part of a tenner, a smattering of Japanese places that while not brilliant were at least reliably OK, and a strange place called Satay Bar whose confused menu of Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese "things on sticks" played second fiddle to a sickly cocktail list. I'm probably exaggerating slightly - there were a few more and probably better places to eat, but options were certainly limited.
How times have changed. Brixton market, sorry "Village", used to be a weird area full of strip-lit halal butchers, mobile phone accessory stalls and greengrocers selling massive yams and baskets of giant African land snails. And in fact, to a degree, it still is. But now, in amongst the odd stubborn clinger-on from the early days are an astonishing number and variety of smart food outlets. Marina O'Loughlin has already given a far more eloquent and comprehensive summary of what you can find there than I ever could, but everything she says is true - it is a wonderful little place for a wander, and I spotted at least a good half dozen exciting ways of spending my lunch money. This time though, and like so many other times in my life, my money - and my mind - were on one thing - a burger.
Honest Burgers is an artfully designed little place, and despite having space for no more than a handful of people it feels airy and comfortable rather than cramped. I hardly ever talk about interior design, through a killer combination of apathy and blinkered food-autism, but Honest Burgers is really nicely done, all solid wooden furniture and Spuntino-style hanging lightbulbs. The menu is short - another massive pro point in my book - and straightforward, just chicken or beef burgers in a couple of different styles. And it all seemed very good value too - £6.50 is a great price for a mid-range burger, especially when you consider it comes with chips, which are often extra elsewhere.
This, though, is the Honest Burger itself (£8), their flagship offering. Inside a glossy (if ever so slightly crumbly) brioche bun is an aggressively seasoned beef patty (cooked from raw mince pressed by hand onto the hot plate) under not-quite-melted cheddar, sweet red onion chutney, sliced (and excellent) pickles, some token lettuce and a nice crisp layer of streaky bacon. And it was good. Not brilliant, but good - great textures, juicy beef, probably a cut above the standard Byron burger for example, and for the same money, although Byron have already hit back with their Uncle Sam, a take on the traditional US cheeseburger and also featuring a brioche bun. I could harp on about the problems with the Honest Burger - I'm not sure onion chutney has any place in a burger, and the bits of cheddar that hadn't melted were rather cloying and overpowering - but really, it was a solid, enjoyable, and yes, honest, effort. Rosemary-salted triple-cooked chips were top notch though, all crunchy and twisted like calamari.
The problem, in fact the only real problem that Honest Burgers have, is the continued existence of a mobile fast food van currently operating out of the kitchens of a Peckham pub. You're probably sick to death of me going on about the Meatwagon, but comparisons are inevitable due to the very similar cooking methods (I think I even saw them use a cloche to melt the cheese onto the beef, although not to steam the bun) and however much I'd like to judge Honest Burgers on their own terms, the fact is, Meatwagon do this kind of thing better. I ate my Honest burger thinking about how I'd like to see the pasty cheddar replaced with Kraft cheese, to lose the chutney, to add a bit of ketchup and French's mustard. And perhaps with a firmer, greasy sourdough bun instead of the crumbly brioche. And then I realised, what I actually want is a Meatwagon. Honest Burgers, simultaneously to their great credit and sad detriment, have created a product that evokes memories of better things without quite the sparkle and - let's face it - black magic that others have managed. But you know what, it's still a good burger and you can still do worse. So, good luck to 'em.