Saturday lunchtime at North Cross Road Market, I am learning fast there is more to selling food on the street than one imagines. My brain, which should be calculating how much change I owe one customer for two Mexican Elvis’ and a bottle of coke, is blank, and the rush has only just begun…
London street food is having a moment. Gone are the days of dodgy noodles from Camden or greasy hotdogs from Charing Cross. From gourmet burgers to slow cooked pork belly, the trend has gained serious momentum in the last two years, with many notable London examples set up in the last 12 months. Street Kitchen, Big Apple, Pitt Cue Co and The Dogfather (to name a few) all serve restaurant standard cuisine at affordable prices, making the movement hard to ignore and easy to embrace.
Which is why, at 8am Saturday morning, I was not only up but walking down North Cross Road to meet Cooper (aka The Dogfather). His story goes like this; Australian born he moved to London 20 years ago and worked in various eateries including Ed’s Diner in Soho. Witnessing the crap hotdogs sold in our capital (and having dreams of opening a diner) he went to work perfecting his menu, finally setting up his pitch 18 months ago. Through word of mouth, support from online food bloggers and a few newspaper inches, he currently does a roaring trade selling an assortment of kitschly named hotdogs such as The Snoopdog and The Mexican Elvis. Being a nice man, and probably underestimating how useless I am, he agrees to let me come and assist him for a morning. We erect the canopy, tie blinds, assemble the cooking station of two grills and a bain-marie and put out stools and low tables for the customers. As we work, Cooper explains that much of the culinary work is done the day before, particularly as he makes his own sauces. The beef steak and pinto bean sauce (one element of the surprisingly complex, Mexican Elvis) is made from Ginger Pig steak, slow cooked for five hours then shredded into the delicately spiced sauce. He hands me a forkful and, despite the fact it is barely 10am, I have to stop myself eating the entire pot.
Next come the adornments; Cooper is a big fan of American kitsch and is excited about his newest purchase, a cactus lamp. All the while we talk about the product, the frankfurters, which are 100% beef, his idea for a dog topped with different mushrooms for winter called The Mush Puppy. His enthusiasm is infectious, the passion for producing a superior version of this classic snack obvious.
In his email, Cooper mentions a free dog, which is why I skip breakfast and keep my fingers crossed. Once setting up is complete, he offers me one before it gets busy. I chose the classic Dogfather; then watch in awe as the gooey mozzarella, onions flecked with mustard seeds and oozing red chorizo are fried on the grill, piled onto the warmed bun, topped with a frankfurter scored to let the red pepper sauce drizzle into its cracks, and grated with fresh parmesan. Despite Cooper’s ‘perfect bun’ that apparently holds the toppings and causes minimum mess, I get sauce on my face, hands and (somehow) sandals. But it’s worth it.
Break over, the pace quickens as people start to order. Coopers piles the grill, cuts buns, deftly scoops frankfurters from the bain-marie, chatting all the while. I stand there. Eventually Cooper hands me the moneybox and I spend a scary twenty minutes attempting mental arithmetic. Mostly Cooper just takes the money, then tells me how many pound coins to give back or asks me to open bottles of coke (I find I’m better at this). At 12, Natalie (aka the help) turns up and I’m relieved of my duties, instead I watch in amazement at the pace in which this brilliant product is served to appreciative customers. Many are obviously regulars, including a charming 8yr old. She informs me, between bites of her cheese dog, that she’s here every Saturday.
What is great about the new kids on the street food block is that they are all, in their own way, trying to break the mould, be it reworking an American classic or applying years of restaurant training in a van. It makes financial sense, particularly for people like me who can’t always afford to eat in restaurants but love new food experiences. It makes ethical sense (the majority of the vendors I spoke with get most of their ingredients within the UK). Most importantly, fresh food, cooked with passion and eaten in the great outdoors makes taste sense. Granted business might take a slight dip in winter but I suspect, like Cooper’s hearty Mush Puppy, these guys have got a few tricks up their sleeves to keep us coming.
North Cross Road Market, Every Saturday, 11-5
Other popular Street Food places to try out:
Currently wooing the offices around Broadgate Circle, Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka set up Street Kitchen after Mark had a “vision of doing a restaurant linked to a supply chain that would be around in 15 years.” Obsessive about the products they use, all ingredients are sourced from the UK (which might sound simple until you realise how many essentials this rules out, including olive oil). With their combined training and culinary backgrounds it is no surprise that the standard is seriously high. I was still marvelling over the freshness of the mackerel (served with marinated beetroot, mustard leaves, crushed potatoes and horseradish dressing) days later.
Broadgate Circle, Tuesday to Friday, 10.30 – 2.30
Big Apple Hot Dogs
London Food bloggers rave about this Old Street hot dog stand and it’s been gaining fans since it opened ten months ago. Pick your choice of pork, beef or a combination of the two, choose your condiment, and let the quality of the frankfurter speak for itself. Whilst I eat, Aibye proudly tells me that Hawksmoor asked for his advice on their new hotdog. High praise indeed.
239 Old Street, Tuesday to Friday, 12-6
Pitt Cue Co
Southbank shed a tear when this barbeque joint closed its hatch on the 4th September. I went four times and discovered two things; people are prepared to queue for good food and homemade smoked sausage is extremely tasty. Chef Tom assures me that this is not the last we have seen of Pitt Cue Co and to keep an eye on twitter for a surprise in November. I for one can’t wait.
Contributing Writer: Lucy Self