House of Fu


By happy accident I have discovered one of the best value lunch deals in Leeds at £8.95 for two superb courses. Less happily, it cost me substantially more.

My Plan A was to visit a restaurant which had been on my To Do List for a long time and, as it was participating in the Eat Leeds scheme offering three courses for £15, I thought that I would give it a go. When I looked more closely at their website I saw that they normally do a special lunch menu so there was no point in reviewing a deal which will end in a couple of weeks’ time. As I was due to go to Leeds Grand Theatre I thought that I would ask Mick Jagger if he would consider whacking Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, thus killing two Byrds with one Stone. 1960s joke!

I trawled through the list of places which don’t have a dedicated offer at midday and House of Fu looked to be just the thing so, as it is just around the corner from the Grand in Headrow House, I booked a table for one at 5.00pm. I don’t use the name Stan Graham when I book just in case the place in question recognises it, I am flattered to admit that has happened before. I rolled up at 4.45, early as usual, and was escorted to a table smack in front of the counter. I think that it might have been to save the waiting staff from having too far to walk as there was only one other party in the place.

The decor is what might be called industrial pretty, with concrete pillar and wood beamed ceiling from which hangs macrame plant pot holders. The furniture is tubular steel, wood and pink, very pink!

The menu doubles as a table mat but, as I had perused it before I booked I knew what I wanted, and that was the Yuzu Chicken Ramen. It consists of Chicken Broth, Sapporo Noodles, Chicken Chashu, Yuzu, Roast Tomato, Spring Onion, Egg and Nori. £12. I was shown the drinks menu and opted for House of Fu Kombucha at £2.50. I didn’t want anything alcoholic and, as this was home made it was the obvious choice. It is made with strawberry, watermelon and mint mixed with their own kombucha culture. It looks very Delboy and has a distinctive taste. I thought that I detected a hit of ginger but couldn’t be sure, it had an ingredient which I have had before but couldn’t place. Whatever it was it was certainly refreshing.

Now that I had my drink I thought that I would read the other leaflet which was in the menu holder on the table and that is when I saw it !!!!!!!!!!

I confirmed with the waiter that the deal was, in fact, two dishes from the normal menu for £8.95. This really left me with no choice but to order a portion of Gyoza so that I could do a proper review. I opted for the Gyoza of the week which turned out to be Ox Cheek and Water Chestnut. £5.

Because of the staggered ordering, the dishes arrived some time apart, which was not a bad thing.

I must say that the ramen was superb. The broth had a good flavour to it rather than the weak stuff you sometimes get which has obviously only been used as a liquid to cook the noodles, in this case also perfectly done. The egg was also perfectly cooked, having a yolk which had just set but still had a little runniness to it. The tomato had been slightly charred when roasting to intensify the flavour giving yet another dimension to the dish. The nori (seaweed) was decoratively placed on the side of the bowl and was – well – nori. Finally to the thick discs of chicken chashu which were wonderfully succulent. Chicken chashu is rolled thigh fried, braised in soy sauce and left to marinate. It was excellent.

Just as I was seeing off the last of the broth my Gyoza arrived. There were six pieces and once again, the flavour was intense. Gyoza are small pancakes which are filled, in this case with ox cheek and water chestnut, and then pan fried but only on one side. Water is then added to the pan which is then covered allowing the parcels to steam, cooking not only the filling, but also the other side. These were fried a bit darker than ones I have had before and, as with the tomatoes in the ramen, the charring had intensified the flavour and accentuated the difference in texture of the two sides even more. There was an accompanying dip of soy sauce.

I declined the invitation to order dessert as the portions meant that I had no room, although the thought of an ice cream sandwich was rather appealing. I doubt it was the block of vanilla between two wafers which I enjoyed as a kid.

I must say that I really enjoyed my meal, and the service was also excellent from all those who served me. Sadly though, the taste which was left in my mouth was not as pleasant as it could have been had I known that by arriving an hour or so earlier I would have saved myself just over £8. I have double and triple checked House of Fu website, twitter and instagram pages and nowhere is the lunch deal mentioned. Because of this lack of customer service I will only be awarding three stars instead of the four it would otherwise have got.

All photographs by Stan Graham


Fat Annie’s

When it comes to writing food reviews my hero is the late, and much missed, AA Gill who wrote for the Sunday Times. He had a wonderful style which influenced the way in which I bang out my rubbish, and a knowledge on the subject to which I could not even begin to aspire. Having nicked his modus operandi I thought that I would plagiarise an observation he made after reviewing a hot dog restaurant in London he found to be pretentiously upmarket and expensive.

The venerable Mr Gill pointed out that hot dogs are working class cheap and cheerful food which should be confined to football games, street vendors and the seaside. On this last point, he mentioned Nathan’s by the Boardwalk on Coney Island, Brooklyn which is also the home of the World Hot Dog Eating Competition. This is held on 4th July each year and the object is to down as many hot dogs, including buns, as possible in the space of 10 minutes. The men’s record was set in 2020 by a chap called Joey Chestnut who managed 75 – yes – 75. I am sure that his table manners were impeccable. The women’s champion also set a new record this year at the rather more sedate pace of 48.5 hot dogs in the allotted 10 minutes.

I have had the experience of sampling a hot dog at Nathan’s on Coney Island and I must say that it was truly awful. No, that is not correct. Strictly speaking something with absolutely no taste at all cannot be described as awful. It is no wonder that they eat them as quickly as possible; they are not to be savoured. Fortunately, Fat Annie’s leaves Nathan’s miles back in its dust. 

Let’s face it, the main ingredient of a hot dog is the sausage, it doesn’t matter what you top it with or slather on as a dressing, if the sausage is no good then the whole thing is a waste of time. Fat Annie’s use specially made sausages which are unique to them and contain only prime cuts of pork and beef and are 95% meat, the rest being made up with spices and a little water. There are also vegan versions so don’t feel left out if you are a non-meat eater. Even the casings are natural. When taking so much care with the star of the show, the supporting act, literally, in the bread is also made by their local artisan baker.

Once again I was fortunate enough to have company for lunch and we each had a different item from the menu. She chose The Classic, a straight hot dog with either grilled or crispy onions, whilst I opted for The Annie Mac which is topped with house pickle, American cheese, secret sauce and crispy onions. We shared a portion of fries and I had a Blood Orange San Pellegrino to drink. 

The Classic

The prices are pretty good normally but there is a lunch deal whereby you get a Classic and Fries for £5. My loaded Annie Mac was £6 and worth every penny. 

By the way, my regular reader will know how much I like a good pun, or even a bad one, well there is a version with toppings which include sea salt crisps called Seabrooks In Seattle, and another Asian inspired one for Breaking Bad fans with the moniker Seoul Good Man. 

Annie Mac

The sausages were absolutely amazing and surprisingly easy to eat without dripping the secret sauce down my shirt but we had been brought a plentiful supply of napkins just in case. Although there was a kick of spice in the hot dog it wasn’t overwhelming as that would have been an insult to the meat which wasn’t minced to a paste as with shop bought Frankfurters, but still had some body to it and was chewy without being tough. It was also remarkably juicy which gave a great textural contrast to the crispy onions, the creamy sauce and the soft bread.

The bun was obviously baked specially to be used in making hot dogs as it had a wide, flat base which enabled it to be put down without rolling over as happens with both bridge rolls and baguettes. This meant that the toppings were not unceremoniously dumped onto the paper on which it was served every time you wanted to wipe your mouth or take a drink. I would have added ‘or talk’ but the hot dogs were so delicious we just went ahead and enjoyed them without much conversation. The fries still had their skin on and were, as you would expect, crisp on the outside and soft in the middle with a hit of seasoning for good measure. 

Take A Guess!

Fat Annie’s is in the food hall at the bottom end of Leeds Kirkgate Market but the seating was arranged to cater for social distancing and situated at the back of the stall. You place your order at the front and it is delivered when ready. The chap who brought us our food was called Rick, an extremely efficient and pleasant chap with banter which added to the experience. Should you not be able to make it to the market they do have a presence at various street food events so keep your eyes open for the mobile version. That should please Mr Gill.

Sadly we didn’t get to meet Fat Annie, so we had to make do with Skinny Rick. My theory is that she is practising for next year’s World Hot Dog Competition, and if she is, might I make so bold as to give her a word of advice. Forget it – sorry, that’s two words. You would be far better taking your time savouring the wonderful version which you produce rather than trying to force 49 of Nathan’s tasteless concoctions down your gob in 10 minutes. There are some records that are not worth breaking.

All photographs by Stan Graham

Bar Soba

I had set off today with a specific location in mind but when I arrived at the establishment in question it had changed its opening hours without thinking to update its website. Thank you very much!

My first choice was a restaurant specialising in Far Eastern cuisine and I was looking forward to using my considerable chopstick skills so I roamed the area in search of somewhere I might be provided with a pair to eat lunch. As Spike Milligan once said, ‘Chopsticks – the reason the Chinese didn’t invent custard.’

After a while I came upon Bar Soba in Greek Street which proclaimed itself to be the purveyor of Cocktails, Street Food and Music. On perusing the menu the nosh on offer was of an oriental bent and they had a great lunch deal so in I went.

The lunch deal comprised a ‘large plate’ and a soft drink for £7. There was also a selection of ‘Small Plates’ at an extra cost and an invitation to add a portion of Dumplings or Cheeseburger Spring Rolls for £3.

I took advantage of the extras and ordered the Fried Vegetable Gyoza Dumplings with Jalapeño and Coriander Dip for a starter and Katsu Curry from the Large Plates as a main. It was described as Crispy Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Jasmine Rice and Katsu Sauce. I eschewed the soft drink in favour of a pint of Maltsmiths Ale. This turned out to be a great move.

The beer was not only a good choice in that it was a superbly balanced pint with neither the hops nor the malt masking the flavour of the other, but it was to be my sole companion, other than the Telegraph Crossword, for the next forty minutes or so until my food arrived!

It turned out that this is an establishment of two halves. The front of house staff were brilliant and couldn’t do enough for me. I was very impressed from the outset when I was asked if I had any allergies before I had even ordered. After confirming that I am able to eat absolutely anything without ill effects my order was taken. The kitchen, however, was not so efficient and I was left waiting for ages until my food came, then, like buses, both courses arrived within a couple of minutes. To give you some idea of the timescale, I had taken my seat at about 1.50 and was due to meet some friends in City Square at 3.00 so I thought I would have bags of time, but, in the end, I had to go without dessert or coffee as it was 2.45 by the time I had finished my curry. The chap who had been serving me confirmed that there was a backlog in the kitchen and pudding could be some time in arriving.

I must say that the food was well worth waiting for. The dumplings were wonderfully crisp and the sauce had a kick to it which livened up the vegetable parcels no end. By this time I was so hungry that I thought the friction on my wooden chopsticks might cause them to burst into flames.

When the dumplings were delivered the waiter apologised profusely for the delay and said he would bring the curry in a further five minutes, which he did. It was obvious from the surface of the sauce that it had been kept warm during the interim and the rice had begun slightly to dry out. Fortunately these symptoms were not detrimental to the dish and the chicken was still moist with the panko crumb coating perfectly crispy. Katsu Curry can taste like that stuff you get in a Chinese take-away, which is not surprising as they both come from the same part of the world, but this was much more subtle. The chicken pieces were larger than I could handle with my chopsticks so I had to resort to the knife and fork provided in a container which arrived with the meal.

I really hope that this was an isolated glitch in the kitchen as I would have been apoplectic had I needed to get back to work. I don’t like to be rushed but this was taking things to the other extreme.

I also didn’t have time to ask about the name of the place. Bar Soba sounds like an oxymoron, I would have thought that Bar Hammered would have been a little more alluring to the cocktail drinking crowd.

All photographs by Stan Graham

Power, Corruption & Lies


Don’t worry, this is not a critique of the US election, or politics in general for that matter, but one of a cocktail bar in Call Lane which also does a pretty good lunch.

I had wanted to try something a bit different once the lockdown was lifted and so decided to trawl through the places offering half price goodies under the Eat Out To Help Out scheme. I have already reviewed a lot of them on this site which cut down my choices somewhat. Added to that, a lot of eateries on the list only open in the evenings or are situated out of town, so that narrowed the field even more. After discounting the chains and those with enough branches to be borderline multiples and have their main outlets in London, my options were dwindling rapidly. From those which were left I opted for Power, Corruption & Lies which seems to be more of a bar than a restaurant, but, nevertheless, came up trumps. Sorry – I said that this wasn’t going to be about the US election.

Sadly, the place was almost deserted when I arrived, although there were people sitting outside enjoying the food, drink and sunshine. It was a little after the conventional lunchtime, whatever that is nowadays, so I hoped that they had been busy earlier on.

I was greeted by a charming young woman who showed me to my table and took my order. They are obviously taking the current situation seriously, as obviously they should, there being a hand sanitiser dispenser on the reception desk and others on each of the tables.

The menu is far-eastern inspired but given a western spin. It is quite short at the moment which could be due to the new opening limitations or because it is mainly a cocktail bar on the Call Lane Trail. The dishes are split into categories: Snacks, Xiaochi, Bao, Dim Sum and Sides. I asked as to the size of the portions and was given the rundown leading me to order a Snack as a starter, a Xiaochi as a main and a Side. This worked perfectly.

My snack/starter was Chicken Karaage at £4.50 which came with Hoisin Ketchup and Szechuan Aioli. The chicken was perfectly cooked, the batter was crisp and the meat moist and tender. The Hoisin Ketchup was just what it says it is and the Szechuan aioli a slightly spiced mayonnaise but with not too much garlic. They both made excellent dips for the bird.

I ordered Crispy Chilli Beef from the Xiaochi which came in at £8.50, and accompanied it with a Side of Steamed Rice for £2.50. According to Google, the word Xiaochi means a dish which is the size of those served from Taiwanese street food stalls. That is obviously of no help whatsoever if, like me, you have never eaten from a street food stall in Taiwan. I think that the photograph is a better indicator of what to expect from this part of the bill of fare. Please excuse the bleaching out of the rice on the shot but I was sitting by a window with the sun streaming in.

If the chicken was good, the beef was magnificent. I love the taste of chilli beef but this is the first place I have ever had it where it actually lives up to the description ‘crispy’. Whether it be from my local Chinese take-away or much more salubrious establishments, I have always found it to be flaccid. This has not affected the taste but has done nothing for the texture. Here, however, there was a resistance to the teeth from the batter which was just right. The beef itself was cooked perfectly too. If I have any gripe it is that the broccoli was a bit overdone and lacked crispness, ironic really.

As it was a sweltering day I had a half of Jisaku Pilsner (the house brew) for £2.60 to keep me cool and it was far more suited to the occasion than a glass of wine would have been. As previously stated, I have never been to a street food stall in Taiwan but I doubt that they would be quaffing Pinot Noir with their Xiaochi.

I was very pleased to see that they do not do desserts as I was pleasantly full and wouldn’t have wanted to cross the frontier into the land of bloat. I did loiter long enough to partake of a black Americano for £2.50 in order to put off venturing out into the hot afternoon for as long as I could.

Power, Corruption & Lies is a very pleasant place in which to have lunch and, if I were forty years younger, I would imagine I would very much enjoy the evening vibe. It was made more so by the 50% discount which meant that the bill came to £13.66 including service charge.

One final observation. As the global pandemic continues to rage on and countries are reporting a second wave, I could not ignore the sentiment of the first groovy tune to come over the sound system when I took my seat, it was the wonderful REM serenading me with ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine’. By the time I left, it was the perfect description of my lunchtime.

All photographs by Stan Graham

Mommy Thai

I have been meaning to call here for quite some time now and once even got inside but, having arranged to meet someone and with only half an hour to spare, I walked out when I saw the size of the portions! Today I was back to being Billy Nomates so time was not a factor. 

I read about Mommy Thai in an article in The Times a few months ago so decided to give it a go. I am pleased that I did but I must say that I left a little disappointed. They have a great value lunch deal which is served every day between noon and 4.00pm at £7.95 for two courses, in my case a starter and a main. This being a Thai establishment, however, they are both served in the traditional way on the same plate and at the same time.

The atmosphere is definitely Thai cafe with basic tables and chairs. The posters on the ground floor walls add to the ambiance, as does the upstairs decor, which is where I dined. I took my seat at a small table for two, but given the size of the plates, or small trays as they really were, a pair of diners would be pushed to find enough horizontal space as was proven by the couple on the next table who I let impinge on mine to rid themselves of the cutlery tin and pickle carousel. For one, it was perfect.

A charming gentleman arrived to take my order which comprised Steam Pork Dumplings with fried garlic and dumpling sauce for starters and Kra Pow Moo Krob, thankfully translated as crispy pork, holy basil, chilli  garlic, long bean on top of rice. (Add a fried egg for just £1) it continued, so I obeyed. I also got a bottle of Singha Beer to go with it all. The crispy pork dish was from the Foodie’s Menu rather than the normal one so I was informed of a further £1 surcharge. I didn’t mind this because at least I had been told before I ordered, unlike my experience at a Vietnamese place just round the corner a few months ago. What with that and the egg, the meal was £9.95, still good value for what was promised, the beer adding a further £3.50, again not out of the way.

Thankfully the bottle swiftly arrived and was perfectly chilled without being too icy. It was joined after a few minutes, and a couple of small sips, by the food. As I mentioned the whole shebang came on the same dish and looked delicious although when viewed from one angle there was a gap on the plate making it look as though there was something missing. I checked to make sure that this was not the case and, having satisfied myself that it was all present and correct, dug in. The dumplings were amazing, lovely and moist packed with minced pork which still had texture to it. The sauce was superb and the fried garlic topping crisp as a contrasting texture. Sadly the same could not be said for the ‘crispy’ pork which was in no way crispy, just overdone and chewy to the point of being almost leather like and only tepid. The taste was really good and meant that I finished eating the meat but the damage was done. The odd piece was on the tender side and therefore much better but crispy means crispy and, as there seemed to be very little fat content I fail to see how they hoped ever to make it so. The heat, or lack of it, seemed to indicate that it had been kept warm also preventing the promised texture. The rice was bog standard boiled and the egg on top was borderline rubbery. I have had fried eggs on Thai food before so I know that it should have been better than this. 

I am not normally one to shy away from dessert, even if I have somewhat overindulged in the mains but the only three puds on offer were also based on rice this time so I passed. 

All in all I was very disappointed, ironically because the things which were done well, i.e. the dumplings and the rice showed what the kitchen was capable of thus highlighting the failure of the egg and pork. I hope that this was just an aberration and that everything is normally wonderful but that is why I write these articles incognito, so that I get the normal experience. It must also be pointed out that this is a cash only eatery so please make sure that you have the necessary readies when it comes to settling the bill. There is a small sign to this effect by the till but it is better you know before you call.

As is usually the case, everyone else’s choices looked far more appetising than mine, but I dare say that they all thought the same about the pork. Looks can often be deceptive, take me for example, I am not really fat and bald once you get to know me.

Falafel Guys at Assembly Underground

Come hungry, leave happy. There can be few better strap lines than that of Falafel Guys and while it is great to talk the talk, you also have to walk the walk, which is just what they do. 

For once I was not dining alone and both my companion and I found that we could just not quite manage to finish out meals. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a Man v Food challenge just a generous portion of superbly prepared food.

There are two branches of Falafel Guys, one is a street food cart in Briggate near Marks and Spencer and the other in Assembly Underground one block up Gt George Street from the Town Hall. Ever the gentleman I suggested that we meet at the latter, partly as we had business to discuss and also because the subterranean premises are home to Vocation Bar which has fifty beer lines. 

Whilst we sipped our way through our respective brews we perused the menu book which contains the bill of fare for all of the vendors in the place which is a great touch. I had gone with a mission to review the Middle Eastern gaff and, after a short time, my friend decided to have the same as I, the Triple Decker which is billed as comprising Chicken, Falafel and Halloumi. This description is only a fraction of the ingredients which come with the dish. Other components are revealed when you look at the options of having it in a wrap or a bowl when you are informed of the addition of Homemade Hummus, Fresh Salad and Sauce. The hummus comes in three colours reminiscent of a Neapolitan ice cream, brown, pink and natural. They all tasted similar but in the bowl looked spectacular. This was a treat my friend missed as she had hers in a wrap which was a large flatbread. 

The reason we went for the Triple Decker was that it gave us the opportunity to sample the complete range of food on offer in one fell swoop. The secret of success here is to do a limited range of options but do them well. The dishes on the menu are Falafel – obviously – Chicken Shawarma, Halloumi and Hummus which can be purchased singly or in combinations. There was a very spectacular looking Crispy Cauliflower Bowl on a specials sign but, as this review is meant to act as a guide for those eating in Leeds there is no point in writing about something which might not be available next month. 

I ordered the bowl because I like to be able to sample the elements of a dish individually before combining them and a wrap prevents you from doing that, however, when I saw the flatbread being constructed I was beginning to think that I might have made the wrong decision as the distribution of the fillings was done to accentuate the flavours of the main ingredients whilst adding the co-stars throughout.  Common sense soon prevailed as I began to pick at the chicken which was as spicy as you would think and perfectly cooked being charred on the outside but wonderfully succulent. Likewise the falafel which was crisp on the outside and moist in the middle. There is nothing worse than the stuff you get in supermarkets which is dry as a bone and like eating sawdust. It takes a special talent to mess up chickpeas. The halloumi was just on the right side of chewy which didn’t cook out the cheese flavour.

The extras were superb as well. The salad leaves in the bottom of the bowl were fresh as were the other additions with the large, hot pickled pepper cutting through the comforting textures and flavours of all of the other parts.

For eight quid this is a bargain whichever way you choose to eat it and I thoroughly recommend a visit to Assembly Underground to anyone working in, or visiting Leeds. Although there are other street food traders there please be sure that you call at Falafel Guys at least once, I am sure that you won’t regret it. We were both testament to the philosophy today in that we arrived hungry and left exceedingly happy.

Indian Tiffin Room

It turns out that this is National Curry Week so the decision as to what to eat was made for me. All I needed to do was work out which of the sub-continent’s restaurants I would choose.

To people of a certain age, the word Tiffin summons up memories of a chocolate bar made by Cadbury’s which contained raisins and biscuit but it seems to have gone the way of many a confection such as Five Boys and Spangles. There are recipes on-line for the choccy version but Tiffin really means a snack although in some parts of India it refers to lunch, so there was really only one place I could choose.

Indian Tiffin Room has been on my radar for some time but I have not called before. I seem to remember that I was late in dining one day and the lunch offer ends at 2.30 and on another occasion I was due to meet someone in the afternoon so didn’t want to risk curry breath. Today it was not yet one o’clock and my appointments calendar is empty until the Christmas after next so it was a perfect time to see what they had on offer.

What they had on offer was everything. By that I mean that they have Thali on the lunchtime special menu which comes in a choice of vegetarian at £8.75 and non-vegetarian £9.75. I love it when this happens as it means that I get to try a selection of the kitchen’s output without putting on a couple of stones in weight.

When I had taken a seat my order was taken by a very pleasant waitress who brought me a jug of water from which she filled the metal beaker on the table. The jug was taken away but I was told to ask if I wanted a refill. The order I gave her was for the non-vegetarian Thali, and a Lassi for £2.50. At the risk of sounding like a fifties film, I love lassi.

When the lassi arrived, in another metal beaker, I took a taste and found that it was the real deal plain version not a fruit one. I have nothing against the mango flavour but it is a little sweet for my taste, a bit like a healthy milkshake.

Within a couple of minutes I was presented with a huge platter upon which was a selection of dishes which had a starter, several main dishes and a dessert. See what I mean about it having everything.

The starter was a pakora which contained potato, hidden in the photograph by the large puri, on a bed of salad. Anticlockwise from the puri are rice, chicken curry, cauliflower and potato, lentil, raita and finally phirni, which is a rice pudding.

Everything was wonderful and the small dishes were bigger than they looked being deceptively deep. The chicken curry especially had a distinctive taste which I could not place so I asked a waiter what it was and he said it was chicken coriander curry, they are obviously, and quite rightly, protecting a secret ingredient here. The vegetable dishes also contained my favourite ingredients in cauliflower, potatoes and lentils. Had there been chickpeas it would have been a full house.

Although the three curries had lots of flavour none of them was very hot, so you won’t be challenged in that respect. If you enjoy the challenge of a vindaloo or even a Madras you might be a little disappointed but this is lunch not Man v Food. The website does point out that ‘our menu is healthy, less influenced by heavily flavoured spices but is filled with the authentic flavours of India’. I was relieved to read that it was not just me then.

I ended the meal with my usual black coffee which came in at £3.00 but if you are content to stick with tap water this is a great value meal with effectively three courses for under a tenner.

Thank you to whomever dreamt up National Curry Week which has given me the nudge I needed to visit Indian Tiffin Room, roll on National Pie and Pea Week.


It wasn’t so long ago that you seemed never to be more than a tostada’s throw from a Mexican eatery, but recently they seem to be a threatened species.

Mexico is not in the EU so it can’t be Brexit and I doubt whether President Trump’s wall is likely to have had an effect yet, so I can only put it down to a change in food fashion and the trend for ethnic food to be sold from street food stalls rather than permanent restaurant premises.

One place which seems to be bucking the trend is Tortilla in Trinity Kitchen. I don’t normally review chain restaurants and until I got home and looked at the website I didn’t realise that this establishment fell into that category. In my defence I don’t get around much anymore and, even if I did, there are only two others in the North of England, one in Newcastle and the other in Liverpool. The reason I don’t do chains is that you all know what to expect from a Burger King and the portions seem to be regulated by accountants rather than chefs. On top of that, I like to promote local independent businesses.

After all that, it would appear that Tortilla is not a Mexican Restaurant anyway but ‘Real California Burritos and Tacos’ which means that it doesn’t sell tortillas. I am so confused. Not to worry, because the one thing about those good folks from the US of A is that they exaggerate their ancestors’ country of origin to such an extent that the longer they live there the more entrenched in their ethnic roots they become. You only need to look at the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York to see how it outstrips by miles anything Dublin has to offer, even though the nearest any of the participants has been to the Emerald Isle is a theme pub in Brooklyn.

Fortunately, the same goes for ex-pat Mexicans in the Golden State, a fact which I discovered when I found myself in San Diego on 5th May 1989.  San Diego is probably one of my favourite places in the world, with the mixture of ultra modern and old world Spanish as it’s just north of the border.  I didn’t realise then that that particular date, Cinco de Mayo, is a Mexican national holiday, meaning I couldn’t sit and have a quiet beer and a read of the newspaper without being assaulted by a Mariachi Band every five minutes.  I also discovered that the only tune that these players know is ‘Roll Out The Barrel’, which is very surreal.  I was back two years later so decided to nip across the border to celebrate the National Day in Tijuana to get the ‘authentic’ experience, and what do I find? Nothing – nada. They just let it pass them by.  Before I draw the curtains and get the slide projector out to bore you rigid with my holiday snaps, I had better get on with my review.

Tortilla is one of those build-it-yourself places. You are first presented with the choice of base dish – Burrito, Naked Burrito or Tres (that’s three to you and me) Soft Shell Tacos.  As I intended eating on the premises and not walking around town with a cylinder of silver foil in front of my mouth, looking like a seventies glam rock singer, I went for the Naked Burrito.  This is where the Californian authenticity was destroyed in that there is a choice of Medium at £5.80 or Large for £6.80 and, as everyone who has visited the other side of the pond knows, there is no such thing as Medium on any menu, it is either Large or Regular.   It was advertised as including rice and beans.

I must say that ordering lunch here is not as straightforward as it sounds, because the choice of base dishes is only the start of a number of multiple choice questions with which you are bombarded.  I thought that the sentence ‘Includes rice and beans.’ would take care of the first bit but no, I had to say whether I wanted tomato based rice or the coriander option.  After going for the latter, there was then the matter of the pulses, and from an exhaustive list offered to me at a speed quicker than the terms and conditions of a finance deal at the end of one of those commercial radio adverts, I opted for black beans.

I believe that I passed that test as I was then given a choice of one of four fillings, the Marinated Grilled Chicken being the object of my affection but, wait, did I want any extras?  I was getting the hang of this now so with my new found cockiness I told them to add chorizo for a quid and flashed a smug glance in the direction of the young woman who was loading my carton (not a euphemism).  She added sour cream and cheese, but then we were back to the exam:  I needed to choose two salsas from a selection of containers displayed on the counter .  I didn’t want to have her go through the full description of each, so I pointed at one and asked for a hot chilli sauce to complete the quota. I declined the offer of guacamole as another extra because the carton was beginning to look like a Man v Food challenge.  Serves me right for ordering the large.  A bottle of cold Corona beer at £3.10 accompanied me and my meal to one of the communal tables in the street food hall of Trinity Kitchen and the three of us began to get to know one another.

There were two things I had noticed whilst being served: first was that the portions had most certainly evaded the company’s bean counters – literally – as the components were liberally added, and secondly, when they were added they had not been piled one on top of the other so that I ended up with every forkful tasting exactly like the last, but had been distributed in different parts of the carton, meaning I could mix the various tastes in myriad combinations. The chicken had been diced into fairly small pieces but was still tender and juicy of texture, with the marinade adding to the joy.  All of the other parts were equally fresh, something which is not always the case when ingredients are displayed for any length of time.

I am sure that the queue of people meant that the turnover was such that nothing had a chance to deteriorate too badly.  The salsa was hot but not excessively so and the beans still had a bit of a bite rather than being a mush like the refried variety.  I have to say that I was very impressed with not only the food, but also the chirpy service. I was also pleased to see that both the chicken and pulled pork were sourced from suppliers with Red Tractor credentials. My only regret about the meal was that I ordered the large portion and it did start to get a bit monotonous by the end.   A medium would have been more than adequate at lunchtime.  Mea culpa.

Whilst chomping away and people watching, the thought crossed my mind that should I visit the USA again I will make sure I am there on 1st August – Yorkshire Day – and see what extravaganza they put on with Whippet Racing and Flat Cap Parades. We can then all go to the pub and stand looking at our feet until someone else offers to buy the first round.

Article first published by Leeds Living on 19th August, 2019

North Brewing Co Tap Room and Little Bao Boys

Not for the first time, my plans for the day had gone awry and also not for the first time the disaster turned to triumph.

I had chosen a venue for my review before I left home rather than winging it as is my wont, but the place I had earmarked was not really suitable in that it didn’t have much of a choice and was basically an all day breakfast bar.  What to do?  My first thought was to cheer myself up by blowing the budget on somewhere fancy, but then I thought again and decided to treat myself by going to a place where I could rely on a good pint and hopefully a decent lunch.  I have visited most of the North Brewing Co.’s pubs but never been to the new Tap Room in Sovereign Street, so I thought that I would pay them a call.

I might very well be mistaken, I seem permanently to be so nowadays, but I think that the new building in which the Tap Room is situated used to be the site of the Queen’s Hall, which was Leeds’ main concert venue in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  It played host to such legends as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Duran Duran and even Mr Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band.  More significant than all of these, however, was that it was the annual venue for the Great British Beer Festival, so it seems like a great place to open a boozer.

Thankfully, the new building is much better suited to dispensing beer than the old place, which was probably the worst in the world for serving ale, as it had a glass roof and the GBBF was always held in July or August, so the hall was turned into a huge greenhouse, meaning that your pint was at body temperature or above despite the cooling ‘snakes’ which were employed to keep the ale chilled.  Incidentally, in winter it was not much better for staging bands because the sweat generated by the audience’s gyrations would condense on said glass roof, which in January would be freezing cold, and fall back to earth akin to a storm in the Amazon Rain Forest.

Any road up, it is the here and now we are bothered about and the large modern bar area is a very pleasant space and laid out so that there is plenty of room either to sit down or mill around.  What I like about North Brewery pubs is that they are all different and not clones of one another.  I ordered a pint of Sputnik at £4.70 and then went to the food counter which is run by another Leeds institution, Little Bao Boy.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they have a lunchtime special, where you can have two baos for £7 which can be a £2 saving on the regular price.  For those who are not familiar with these oriental delicacies, bao are fluffy discs of bread which are lovely and light because they are steamed rather than baked.

For my two I chose the East Meets West, which was filled with pork shoulder slow cooked in chilli, soy sauce, ginger, apple juice, five spice and garlic.  It is served with cucumber, spring onion, toasted sesame seeds, hoisin glaze and sriracha mayonnaise.  Sriracha is another form of chilli sauce.  Don’t be put off by the seeming excess of chilli – the bun was not an assault on the taste buds but subtly flavoured which, along with the other components, spanned the gamut of tastes.  My second choice was Beer Battered Cauliflower.  I think that cauliflower is my favourite vegetable and here it was fried in Sputnik beer batter mix and topped with similar goodies to the pork, except for the glaze.  Not only were they both excellent but were also able to be eaten in the hand without disintegrating, a plus when you are wearing pale brown chinos and a white shirt.  The pork was beautifully unctuous and tender whilst the cauliflower still had a crispness to the stalk of the floret.  Perfect.  What also made the day complete was that there is outside seating; not the greatest view in the world, granted, which I made use of and wondered why so many people go to sandwich shops when there is food like this available at the same price, if not cheaper.

Once again I have had a great lunch at a Plan B venue, which just goes to show what a great place Leeds is at the moment when it comes to dining out, even in a beer hall.  If you are not adventurous enough to try the bao buns, might I recommend your calling at the North Bar in New Briggate, where you can get the great Yorkshire lunch of a pint and a pork pie.  Go on, you know you want to – and the brown sauce is free.

Article first Published by Leeds Living on 4th July, 2019

Pizza Fella

The phrase ‘less is more’ springs to mind when reviewing Pizza Fella, the restaurant on Vicar Lane.  I pass the place fairly regularly so thought that it was about time I called in to test their wares.

Not only does the less is more philosophy apply to the decor but also the food, which is what makes this place stand out from a lot of the others.

This is the second time in a week I have come face to face with a stripped back pizza.  The last one was ordered by a friend of mine at another establishment, but today I had one all for myself.  I realise that the cuisine of Italy is as varied as anywhere else and so dishes with the same name vary from region to region, as happens in this country when, if moving from Cornwall to Devon, the way in which you eat a cream and jam scone differs fundamentally. Pizzas are a case in point, where the base and the toppings are changeable.  In Rome, the base is thin and crispy, whereas in Naples it will be lighter and thicker.  There are then the American abominations with a further range of combinations such as the Chi-town ‘deep pan’ base, which is as stodgy as you can manage.  Then there are the toppings, the Italians keeping it simple with locally produced delicacies, whilst Americans pile them high with everything they can lay their hands on.  Until recently we were not much better – witness the great pineapple debate of a few years ago, but thankfully there are now more authentic versions being produced in the UK and in Leeds in particular.

The decor at Pizza Fellas is stripped back, with basic tables and chairs or longer benches from which you can sit and watch the world go by. The menu continues this theme, with the pizzas themselves not having names but numbers. Most of the choices have a maximum of six toppings, two of which are the basic fior di latte and tomato, the vegan options dispensing with the former.  I was dining with a friend, so we had a bowl of nocellara olives dressed with extra virgin olive oil to start with, and at £3.50 there were ample for two. The other starters were either salads, not really suitable for sharing, or bread based, meaning that with the pizza we would have had more carbs than a Ferrari. I had a glass of Nero D’Avola at £4.75 for 175ml, whilst my friend had an Italian Cola (Baladin) £3.00.

For the main course, we had a Number Four at £9, which had the addition of portobello mushrooms and thyme, and a Number Eight with nduja, balsamic onions and fresh chilli at £11.  A note in the menu says ‘We make our dough on site using 4 ingredients – caputo flour, Yorkshire water, salt and yeast. We then let the dough prove at room temperature to create a soft, light, easy to digest pizza.  We hand stretch the dough and cook in our wood fired oven for 60-90 seconds to create a soft and floppy Neapolitain pizza.’ A minute doesn’t sound a lot of time to cook dough, but the oven is so hot that it is fine.  My companion and I both agreed our pizzas were excellent.  The nduja, a spicy, spreadable sausage, strategically placed in dollops on the cheese and tomato, carried a fair bit of a kick and livened up the pizza no end.  The base was just as described and meltingly delicious. It would have been a tragedy to have piled it high with unnecessary toppings, thus masking the subtle taste. For the same reason, I was also pleased to see that the tomato didn’t cover the base completely.

Desserts were similarly straightforward – a Tartufo Lemo with an unctuous gooey lemon filling, and my Affogato, both £4.50. It is ages since I have had Affogato, which is vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso. They are served separately but the idea is that you pour the coffee over the ice cream. Because I was taking photographs, the espresso had cooled down a bit too much so I didn’t get that hot v cold battle going on in my mouth but it was good nevertheless. A black Americano at £2.30 completed the meal. I sometimes wonder how I ever get to sleep. Fortunately, I don’t seem to be affected by caffeine.

Finally, the service kept up the minimalist theme with the waitress, Alexandra, delivering everything in a pleasant, efficient way.  She was attentive without being overbearing. What made her a cut above the rest was that she was always scanning the room, even when not taking or serving orders and so you could instantly attract her attention should you need anything. There is nothing so annoying as wanting your bill and all of the serving staff are in a huddle or looking everywhere but towards the customers, especially at lunchtime if you have to get back to work. Well done indeed.

Article first published by Leeds Living on 3rd June, 2019