Friday, 13 April 2012
Pizza Pilgrims and Banh Mi 11, Berwick St, Soho
Berwick Street market in Soho is barely a few months old but the careful selection of fresh greengrocers and hot food stalls gives it the atmosphere of a much more established arrangement. Of course, it is helped by the atmosphere of Soho itself, the stalls nestled in between trendy artisan coffee shops like Foxcroft & Ginger and Flat White, as well as the more, er, "traditional" sex shops and suspiciously threadbare "modelling" agencies. I love Soho - always have - and I hardly needed another reason to toddle down from Holborn on my lunch hour. But the combination of the buzz and shabby glamour of this part of town and some utterly brilliant new ways of spending your £5 lunch money is now even more difficult to resist.
I may be the last blogger on earth to write about Pizza Pilgrims, but before you cry hype-fatigue (and I know there's plenty of you just love being the first to do that), remember only this - they really are that good. I sometimes think pizza is the most abused foodstuff in the capital, and while there have always been a tiny handful of places doing it well (Donna Margherita in Battersea, Franco Manca in Brixton, Due Sardi in Shoreditch), it seems these are a drop in the ocean next to chains like Zizzi's (whose pizzas taste like ketchup smeared on cardboard) and depressing novelty hen-party joints like Fire and Stone.
There's no chicken tikka or Thai green curry abominations at Pizza Pilgrims though, thank God. All their pizzas are made to order, and for the most part are remarkably simple constructions - a smear of San Marzano tomato purée, a few chunks of silky mozzarella, a few leaves of basil. They have the odd special topping, such as n’duja or salami, but the key to their extraordinary good flavour (and believe me, they taste as good as you could possibly hope for) is a solid foundation of great base ingredients, and a stonkingly hot oven housed in the back of a tiny van that looks like it's made of Lego. At £5 for a single portion (I'm guessing about 10", but don't quote me on that), they are also remarkably good value, which would explain the 40 minute queue on my first visit, but I believe this was unusual - outside peak times they can bash them out in a couple of minutes. And anyway, food like this is always worth waiting for.
Just a bit further up the road are old Broadway Market favourites Banh Mi 11. Regulars of their Hackney spot will understand already what all the fuss is about, but for the uninitiated these are doing for the titular Vietnamese sanger what Pizza Pilgrims are doing for pizzas. Into a golden warm baguette is stuffed carrot & radish pickle, cucumber, a handful of fresh coriander, lovely toasted peanuts and crispy dried shallots. Next you choose between a variety of droolsome protein options (I went for "Imperial BBQ" - hot pork marinated in caramel and lemongrass, according to their website) and then the whole lot is covered in a few dollops of fresh green chilli sauce of some kind and a generous slick of Sriracha.
Of course, it's brilliant - the fresh pickles and fragrant herbs lift the rich pork fat, the baguette gives just the right amount of resistance, neither crumbling apart nor giving your jaw too much of a workout, and the texture of the toasted peanuts and Sriracha is an utter joy. There is barely a single element of this sandwich you could change to improve it - the mark of a truly exceptional piece of work - and I can't praise it highly enough.
God knows it's not hard to find reasons to be depressed about the state of British food, many of them documented in miserable detail on these pages, but on the streets of Soho on a sunny afternoon as I tucked into yet another lovingly-crafted and great value lunch, it occurred to me that actually there are far more reasons to be hopeful. The food stalls of Berwick Street have already started spilling over into the top end of Rupert Street, serving Indian dhaals and Ghanaian wraps and fierce-looking Thai curries. Elsewhere in town, too, thanks to the raging success of the Eat.St collective, exciting new street food stalls are met with delirious enthusiasm, and the more popular protagonists have become minor celebrities. There will always be crappy laminated chains peddling gross profits and "black pepper, sir?" but it's becoming increasingly easy to ignore them. And for that we should be truly thankful.
Pizza Pilgrims 9/10
Banh Mi 11 9/10
EDIT: Although Berwick St Market is of course centuries old, I had assumed that the hot food bit was new. Not so, according to David the Pedant, because Freebird burritos have been there for at least 5 years. Shows you how much I know.