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.

Pizza Pilgrims on Urbanspoon
Bánhmì11 on Urbanspoon

16 comments:

David said...

I think you'll find Berwick Street Marketis a bit older than you claim- say a few centuries? I suppose to a blogger, a market's only a market if there's a stall previosuly seen in Dalston there...

Chris said...

David: Thank you Mr Pedant, but I should have been clearer I suppose. Yes the market is centuries old but hot food is a brand new thing - a couple of months at most.

David the pedant said...

I won't bother you again, but... there's been hot food there the hotdogs/ moroccan etc (and on rupert streed- freebird) for at least 5 years (as long as I can vouch for having worked withing 5 minutes walk) but I suspect longer.

Nicky said...

Quick question - how much was the Banh Mi? Ta

Chris said...

David: Ah. OK I didn't know that, was just going on what the Pizza guys told me! I'll do an edit.

Nicky: Same as the pizza, £5.

unclehunty said...

Banh Mi 11 is ok, but still not as good as the original at CafeVN in Broadway market without whom the 2 girls would not have any business. They started working there years ago then turned into the competition against their old boss. Nice.

Much prefer to sit at Cafe VN and drink coffee and eat a banh mi in comfort and watch the world go by on a Saturday.

William Leigh said...

He's right, hot food been there as long as I can remember. The market has been re-invigorated with these new peeps as it was starting to die.

J@feasttotheworld said...

I have to agree with you . Both pizza pilgrim and bahn mi 11 do serves delicious food. I have had the great fortune to try them both recently and I 'm glad that good street food are getting increasingly popular.
Hopefully this will soon see the demise of horrible chains or at least force them to up their game with the food they serve. An insipid sandwich is just not desirable anymore.

Jeff said...

Got to say wasn't impressed by pizza pilgrims or due sardi - the first a bit tasteless And novelty (better off round the corner at Princi) the second kind of dry with a biscuity crust. Santore for me any time.

Anonymous said...

"Berwick Street market in Soho is barely a few months old" LOL are you retarded!?

Gingle said...

I couldn't agree more with Chris about BanhMi11, though I hadn't noticed the original Cafe VN at Broadway Market, just these girls. Is it still there?

I also agree with Jeff - Pizza Pilgrims did nothing for me - I said exactly what you've said - tasteless! I thought I was the only one! :) Haven't had the pizza at Princi, but have sampled their sweet stuff. Will give it a try next time I'm there.

Lizzie said...

OMG LOLZ ROFL derrrr WTF I can't believe you said that! ;)

In an area that's being taken over by chains ( Le Pain Q on Wardour Street - SNORE) it's nice to have a little variety. I would like more options now too please. Greedy, moi?

Oh, and Pit Stop Cafe towards the top end (Chinese-style food) is really good too,

Ed said...

David The Pedant...Freebird burritos are shite. That is all.

Becs@Lay the table said...

I'm attempting my own Banh Mi after reading about it on a few blogs. I had to pick up a suspicious looking jar of Polish pickles from the supermarket because I don't have pickled carrots. Hopefully it'll still be ok!

pizza wandsworth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dan Bowtell said...

Overheard man from the council telling developers (or at least they looked like developers) today that the market was 'dying on its arse' and that despite massive funding it was tatty and the pavement was tatty.

He also claimed it was empty. This was after I'd been stood in the rain for 10 minutes waiting to order because it's so busy. Looks like they're pushing ahead with redevelopment.