Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Meat School at Cannon & Cannon


Surely the best kind of school? It definitely beat double English Lit. on a Friday afternoon.

I was invited to the launch of Cannon & Cannon's Meat School. Cannon & Cannon are purveyors of British cured meats. They're not producers as such - they're curators of the good stuff. They have stalls at various markets, and they also occupy the space underneath Salon, in Brixton (have you been there for brunch yet? Go. Immediately.) Their HQ is in Borough Market, which is where we went to be schooled.

We started off with cured loins, and the first was delicate and sweet in flavour, laced with an incredibly creamy strip of fat. 

All of the loins were from different producers, so each had a distinctive style. I particularly liked the paprika-cured loin from Trealy Farm, Monmouthshire, for its subtle spiciness. The others, from Moons Green in East Sussex, Black Hand Foods in Hackney and Capreolus Fine Foods in Dorset all held their own with other charcuterie I've tasted on the continent. Ed Smith, creative director of Cannon & Cannon, talked us through the process of how the meat is cured. Alongside, we tasted wines from Jascots, matched for each style of charcuterie. 

From the collar now, which came from Trealy Farm and Capreolus Fine Foods again, and also Native Breeds in Gloucestershire. These are a little firmer, denser and all round meatier, each with their own unique flavour. 

Ahh, these air dried sausage variants were a bit more like the saucisson I'm used to, particularly the pork, fennel seed and garlic from Moons Green, back right. This in particular was much like the salami you and I think of when it's mentioned, and in the background left there, pork, seaweed and garlic from Cornish Charcuterie was a little lacking in seaweed flavour, though I enjoyed the chewiness of it. In the foreground, the pork, fennel seed and cubeb pepper from Black Hands Food won my heart with its spicy pepperiness. In between, we cleansed our palates with bread from Bread Ahead, and the most insanely addictive sweet pickled cucumbers from Vadasz Deli

And then, something a little bit different - venison and long pepper (back), from Native Breeds, and the other from Great Glen Charcuterie in Scotland.  Spiked with green peppercorns, it was  supple and floppy, gently cured, and the other a little more robust. Deep, rich and gamey, I loved them both.

Finally, a little treat. Trealy Farm had been experimenting using pork, duck and Sichuan peppercorn. I got to have the first taste on account of being the most Chinese (read: pushy) in the room, and it was absolutely fantastic. There was the richness of the duck fat, the mellow sweetness of the pork, and then lip-tingling spiciness from the Sichuan peppercorns. I am ordering more as soon as I can. 

Meat School isn't just about tasting charcuterie. They also run classes on how to cure your own bacon, cured meat butchery, and pates and terrines. The one I went on was £25 - along with a welcome drink, it really is worth it. Just don't break their meat slicer...


Browse the courses here

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Roti King (Revisited), Euston

I wrote about Roti King a couple of years ago, when it was on the Charing Cross Road. I only went once, and I am a total fool. It was so convenient to my office, and I only went once! Those were the days when word hadn't quite got out yet about Mr Roti King, and you could swan on in there, have a sit and eat some freaking delicious roti. 

Not so now. 


Admittedly, we did visit on a Friday night, right at prime time, and we did go as a group of 5 when the restaurant sits 30 at most. We queued for at least an hour, watching the guy slap his rotis out, folding them up and cooking them on a hot flat griddle next to him. The result? All our clothes absolutely honked. But no matter, as we had wine to slurp our way through (it's BYOB). The waitress, weaving in and out of everyone, delivering orders to the tables must have a patience of a saint.

The roti (opening pic) is so, so good. Cooked freshly to order, it's hot and flaky. We peeled off pieces to dip in both lamb and chicken curries. The murtabak (the roti is spread with egg, folded and cooked so it is stuffed) came with a dhal that was pleasantly spicier than expected too. Char kway teow had the appropriate smokiness from the wok, and enough prawns to please the table. I asked the chap on the table next to us how his Laksa was, and he looked pretty ambivalent about it. Further reports have been favourable though, so I'll just have to return. Soon.

Nasi lemak could have done with fresher coconut rice, but it was still pretty good. To be honest, we all had eyes for the roti and not much else. 

Yup, that there is a roti cone, drizzled with chocolate syrup. A nice, sweet ending to proceedings, though the roti stuffed with banana is infinitely more satisfying. 

(I have a recipe for banana roti, Thai style, drizzled with condensed milk in my book, Chinatown Kitchen... it's out on 2nd April plug plug plug) 

At £15 per head, it's stupidly good value. I can't wait to return, already. 

Roti King 
40 Doric Way,
London NW1 1LH

Roti King on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Blacklock, Soho

"Do you want to eat piles of meat and drink £5 cocktails in a former brothel basement in Soho?" 

"Of course I do."

That, pretty much, is how I'd sum up Blacklock. Opened a few weeks ago, the slim doorway doesn't give away the cavernous space beneath. It's dark. It's noisy. It's not for vegetarians. The menu consists of pre-meal bites, a selection of 'skinny' chops, and some sides - you're here for the meat. The 'crisps' are perfectly circular crisp breads; of the lot, egg mayo and anchovy is my favourite. I'm not sure what is 'filthy' about a wafer of parma ham atop the crisps, but in any case, I favoured the pickled vegetables with a sharp, strong cheese over them. 

I've been twice now - once for dinner, when it was a no-brainer to go for the 'all-in' option of a load of chops, a side each person and the crisps for £20 per person. It's enormous, a whopping great pile of charred meat on the bone. A blacklock is a type of cast iron press, and these are used to press the meat against the hot grill. Underneath the meat is crisp, spongy bread, soaking up all those meat juices and fat. Pork belly, lamb t-bones and chops, and beef chops were all present and cooked well, with incredible flavour from well-sourced meat. 

I returned again for lunch, and we attempted to order a la carte at £4 per chop but we abandoned that idea when the order became too confusing. It's just easier to go all in. This time the beef chops were out of stock, so a pork and lamb feast was presented to us. My earlier criticism that the meat was aggressively salted seems to have been addressed. 

But what of the sides? Oh, the glorious, glorious sides. Carrot and meat radish salad was a vinegared affair, shaved thinly and dressed with fennel seed and parsley. It's brilliant - well balanced, and it cuts through the richness of the meat. Kale and parmesan salad was the antithesis of this, what with being very cheesy and robust. Chargrilled baby gem was another favourite at the table.  

Anyone who knows me knows that there's not much I dislike in the food world, but sweet root vegetables have that dishonour. So I was as surprised as anyone when I actually actively enjoyed the 10 hour coal-roasted sweet potato - a genius idea of cooking them overnight on the dying embers. Smoky, sweet, and seasoned well with butter, I have found my new favourite side dish. I don't even know who I am anymore. 

And what of those cocktails? The nettle gimlet is a pretty thing, served in a tiny glass but packed full of potent punch. An Aperol negroni was a shy cousin of it's usual bolshy Campari-led self. They have a beautiful cocktail trolley which they'll wheel round to you to stir up an Old Fashioned, which is pretty much the best way to end a night.

There is only one dessert, the white chocolate cheesecake. The waiting staff come round with a dish off of it, proffering a portion with an accompaniment of stewed rhubarb, which I imagine might change as the seasons do. What a cheesecake! Light and fluffy, and the only thing I was capable of eating after that carnivorous frenzy.  

Blacklock will be a deserved success. The staff are friendly, the playlist makes you want to wave your arms in the air, and the food is accessible and no-nonsense. I hope the sides will change slightly as to what's available as the year wears on, and as I understand it they will be introducing specialist and larger, sharing cuts of meat. At around £35 a head if you're being sensible, it's perfectly reasonable to go back all the time. Interspersed with gym visits, perhaps.  

The Basement,
24 Great Windmill St,
London W1D 7LG 

No reservations

Blacklock on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Homeslice, Covent Garden

When I was 19, I was taken to Pulcinella's on Old Compton Street. It was a regular lunch spot for our department of engineers, and I was their new personal assistant. Upstairs they had vast tables; these were the days where you could go for lunch as 8 of you on a Friday afternoon without a reservation in Soho - remember that?! My pizza arrived, unusually larger than I had imagined. Instead of my requested 12 inch, the 15" had turned up. What was I to do? A lone girl, the table of men looked upon me expectantly. I hoovered up the lot, and was thus nicknamed 'gannet'. I didn't tell them that the pizza was remarkably easy to finish, no - I hammed up the glory of my triumph. For the best really, since I bumbled my way through that job role, with absolutely no idea what was going on. I was great at booking flights and hotels for the trips and conferences they attended abroad, and I was pretty good at getting meetings in diaries, but actually being able to take minutes and understand what was going on at those meetings? I fell asleep a lot. I lasted 8 months.

Anyway, almost 10 years later, and here we are at Homeslice. They started off in a van, and opened up their bricks and mortar place in Covent Garden's Neals Yard just under two years ago, with help from investor Mark, none other than Terry Wogan's son. On a Monday night by 7pm the place was full; we were able to put our names down and wander off for 25 minutes before we were called back again. A huge pizza oven dominates the back of the room, lit with harsh fluorescent lighting - very Naples. For the rest of the restaurant, the room is atmospherically lit with candlelight (so, you know, dark), and tables are squeezed closely together. There is some great tiling.

There is no messing with the menu. It's chalked up on a blackboard for all to see, and some pizzas are offered by the slice for £4 per slice, while others are £20 for a 20 inch pizza. Fine, I thought. 20 inches between 2? Absolutely fine. I remembered Pulcinella's.

It was not fine. I died from carbicide. I am not 19 anymore, god DAMN it. Sure, sure, they will give you a pizza box to take leftovers home. I watched an incredibly annoying couple on the table next to us package up at least 60% of their pizza to take home but on account of their annoyingness I refused to do so lest I become anything like them. Also, I have no self control.

But what of the pizza? It's good. The bases are thin, the crust (or cornicione) is pillowy and chewy. A little saltier than what I'm used to. The toppings are inventive; they have the classic margherita (which would be incredibly poor value at £20 for 20 inches) but they also do others like goat shoulder with kale, yoghurt and sumac, or chorizo, corn and coriander - which would have been my choice, had I not been a bit weirded out by the thought of coriander on a pizza.

Instead, we went for half and half of bone marrow with brussels sprouts and pickled onion, and Calabrian peppers with chervil and Lincolnshire Poacher (a type of cheese). Would it have killed them to take the stem off the peppers? That was a bit troublesome. But otherwise, the spicy pickled peppers worked beautifully with the rich cheese. The brussels sprouts were shaved very thinly, like a carpet of vegetable. This was the least favoured side as the bone marrow wasn't hugely flavoursome. The brussels sprouts kept flaking off into my wine glass too - lumpy wine. That is my fault though. The main issue I had was that both sides were a bit similar - again, our fault - next time, something like mushroom and ricotta would complement it well.

A word on the wine. Red, white or fizzy? They plonk a giant bottle of it on your table, which you help yourself to, and then at the end of the meal they measure how much you've drank and charge you appropriately (£4 for a glass of red). This is GENIUS - no hanging around having to finish your wine, thus freeing up tables, and no indecision on whether another bottle is a good idea (it usually is). Loved it. I assume everyone is adult enough not to go poking their fingers / bits of stuff into the bottles. Right?

13 Neal's Yard
London WC2H 9DP
Homeslice on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Where to Shop in Chinatown, London

I love Chinatown. I love my Chinatown, I love Toronto's Chinatown, I love New York's Chinatown - both Flushing and Manhattan. I love Chinatown so much, I've written a cookbook about the ingredients you find in Chinatown. That's how much I love Chinatown.

Our own, just off Leicester Square, isn't huge. Three main streets - Wardour Street, Gerrard Street, Lisle Street - make up the main bulk of it, with smaller capillary streets running off and around it. It's rammed full of restaurants, shops, supermarkets and bakeries - it's never anything short of colourful and bustling.

Here are the places I like to shop for ingredients the most.

Dansey Place - parallel to Gerrard Street, it's a grimy little alleyway, and rather a daunting one to walk down. But it is home to Lo's Noodle Factory, a tiny little shop that sells rice noodles and buns. I can't say that this is the most comfortable shopping experience. It isn't really a shop - it's a bunch of cardboard boxes and industrial machinery in a room with a man who doesn't speak a great deal of English. They definitely don't take card. But they do sell silky smooth fresh flat rice noodles, called ho fun, and rice noodle rolls (chee cheung fun) as well as fluffy buns. It might be a point-and-grin situation but he's really friendly, and the noodles are so fresh they're often still warm in that slightly greasy plastic bag they're sold in. They're incomparable to dried, fresh are so much better, and it's £1 a bag. (I have a recipe in my book for seafood ho fun noodles in egg gravy...) 

Down the same alleyway, is a teeeeny tiny shop that sells fresh vegetables. Apparently it's called Mrs Mao's, after the owner who grows the vegetables at her smallholding in Kent, but it doesn't have much in the way of English signage. Bok choi, chives, mustard greens, gai laan (Chinese broccoli) are all sold here, and in a way that you can choose your own portion rather than pre-bagged.

Young Cheng Fresh Seafood Shop often sells crabs and lobsters straight from the tank, and pigs blood, clams, whelks, prawns and a variety of fresh fish from slabs of chipped ice.

Back out on to Gerrard Street proper, Loon Fung is the largest of the supermarkets and I shop there for their butcher counter. There, you can buy tripe, minced pork, tongue, pork belly and various other bits, or they have a fridge section with it pre-packaged. This place is good for general Chinese stuff.

New Loon Moon also stocks a lot of Chinese products, but their main specialism is Thai and Vietnamese produce. This is the place to go to buy herbs and vegetables like lemongrass, Thai basil, galangal and the likes. They also sell green peppercorns, krachai, Vietnamese hot mint and coriander, and even stinky petai beans. They have a vast Korean and Japanese dry goods section upstairs too.

See Woo also has branches in Greenwich and Glasgow, and this tightly packed shop is where I buy my equipment (downstairs) and also has a great variety of vegetables. They're the only place I've ever seen that sells celtuce, and their greens always look fresh and perky. They also sell my favourite soy sauce, Pearl River Premium Deluxe light soy.

Of course, not all of us have access to Central London, so a few other places to shop:

Wing Yip, Croydon & Cricklewood
Korea Foods: New Malden, Cambridge, Golders Green, Bournemouth, Birmingham, Mitcham, Reading, Coventry 
Wing Tai: Peckham, Brixton & Croydon
Wai Yee Hong, Bristol
Longdan (specialises in Vietnamese): Shoreditch, Leyton, Kingston, Elephant & Castle
Hoo Hing: Romford, Enfield, Leyton, Mitcham, Park Royal, Milton Keynes and online


Sous Chef
Japan Centre

Where do you like to shop? Where have I missed? Do you have any hidden gems? Do share!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Hunanese Hot & Sour Soup

I have a real big soft spot for hot & sour soup. When I was a kid in Hong Kong my dad used to buy a particular brand that came in a foil pouch, which you could just stick in a pot of boiling water to heat up. It came out just as you and I know it; slightly gloopy from cornflour, with bits of mushroom and char siu, sometimes peas floating about in it. We always added more vinegar to pep it up. It really hit the spot.

All over Asia countries have their version of hot and sour soup. In Thailand, tom yum soup is a clear broth flavoured with lemongrass and lime leaves, sometimes with chicken (tom yum gai), sometimes with prawns (tom yum goong). I have a recipe in my book, Chinatown Kitchen which you can buy here, plug plug, for my ultimate tom yum made with a secret ingredient. The Filipinos also have their own version, as do the Vietnamese. 

Traditionally, the Chinese version of hot & sour soup originates from Beijing or Sichuan, and pigs blood is used to thicken the broth. What with it being rather difficult to find here, and perhaps not immediately appealing, instead most Chinese restaurants use cornflour to thicken it, giving it that characteristically gloopy appearance, or it is thickened egg-drop style - that is, whisked egg is stirred slowly into the soup and the strands are suspended within the broth. Contrary to popular belief, white pepper is used for the 'hot' aspect of the soup, not chillis. 

This Hunanese version is thickened by dried rice noodles cooked directly into the pot, so the excess starch thickens the soup. Chilli bean paste gives a richer, deeper hotness, though the white pepper also features. Pickled mustard greens give it that extra wallop of the sour balance. It's a great one-dish meal; after all the initial chopping it is quick to cook. Always add the black vinegar at the end, otherwise it loses its delicate flavour easily. You can add leftover roast meats like chicken or pork to this too, but it's just as filling in its vegetarian (and even vegan) state. 

Hunanese Hot & Sour Noodle Soup

Serves 4

1/2 block of firm tofu, chopped into cubes
1.5 litres of vegetable or chicken stock
4 shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, stems removed and slivered
2 pieces of woodear fungus, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes and shredded
A handful of sugarsnap peas, julienned
3 tbsp pickled mustard green, rinsed well in water
A bundle of enoki mushrooms, stems cut into three pieces
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch of ginger, peeled and minced
2 tbsp chilli bean paste
2 tbsp light soy sauce
4 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tsp white pepper
1 spring onion, greens and whites separated, julienned
1 large red chilli, sliced into rings
250gr dried rice noodles - I used 8mm size
1 tbsp cooking oil

In a large saucepan, heat up the oil on a medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger and whites of the spring onions and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the chilli bean paste, stir well, then all the mustard greens, shiitake mushrooms and the woodear fungus. Add the chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes. 

Add the soy sauce, then add the noodles. Stir well, making sure the noodles are covered with liquid. Cook according to the packet instructions - mine took about 10 minutes of simmering to become soft. Stir every couple of minutes. When the noodles are soft, add the tofu and simmer for another 3 minutes, then add the sugarsnap peas and enoki mushrooms and place a lid on top. Take off the heat and leave to stand for 5 minutes. 

Serve equally into 4 bowls and add the black vinegar and a hefty pinch of white pepper on top of each, with a little greens of the spring onion garnish. Finally, add a few chilli rings to each bowl. I usually bring the vinegar and some chilli oil to the table, in case people prefer to adjust their soups themselves.

Monday, 23 February 2015

New York, January 2015: The Manhattan Edition

Having spent a little time in Manhattan in the past, I was keen to visit the places missed off on previous visits. Our group was a good mix of New York old-timers, part-timers and first timers so we spanned a breadth of obvious tourist trips and more cultural visits; a Tenement Museum tour is highly recommended - it was brilliant and informative. The Highline, in January, while brilliantly sunny was windy and freezing. We had almost entire freedom to it though, a stark contrast from the crowds in the summer. Central Park had a fresh blanket of snow, muffling our footsteps.

Grand Central Station is a tourist stalwart and you can see why. Breath-taking architecture in the main hall melded with the modern times in the basement of crowds gathering for a pre-train Shake Shack burger. En route to a walking tour of Harlem, we were lured into the world-famous Oyster Bar.

Everywhere around us diners were tucking into hearty bowls of their famous New England clam chowder, served from tureens on pivots for easy pouring. Sachets of fish-shaped crackers were scattered on the bar to dip into them. On a cold winter's day, they can sometimes sell 550 bowls of it. In anticipation of lunch, I stuck to 3 of the most amusingly-named oysters from a long menu and we were persuaded into ordering a bottle of prosecco, upgrading our glasses.
Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Obviously in the excitement of it all we missed our walking tour by getting pretty stupidly lost (never let me direct you anywhere). We binned it off and ducked into Sylvia's Restaurant, a 50 year old Harlem institution, self-styled as the 'Queen of Soul Food'. We walked into a surprisingly busy restaurant, given it was 3pm, and promptly discovered we absolutely had to all order a main course each, as were the restaurant rules. Our planned restaurant crawl fizzled out. Warm complimentary cornbread with butter kicked us off and it was really irresistible; slightly sweet, cake-like in texture and with a slight crunch to the top. 

There was only one thing in my mind that I absolutely had to order and that is the fried chicken. On the set lunch menu it came with a choice of two sides, so garlicky mashed potato with okra and tomato gumbo were my selects. I love the sliminess of okra, and this certainly didn't disappoint, though it won't win any beauty contests. The chicken was crisp and hot, a salty crust giving way to juicy leg meat. It was a fine example, though I can't say it has beaten any fried chicken I've tried so far. Collard greens stewed with ham was comforting, macaroni cheese was a bit school canteen-style but I liked it, in a nostalgic way. Fried chicken with waffles was served with maple syrup and a pat of butter and was an absolutely monstrous portion. I'd go back for their 'famous Gospel Sunday'.
Sylvia's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

We visited at a fortuitous time, when other friends also happened to be in the City and on the Friday night we converged into a mass of 8 and descended upon Uncle Boons in East Village. Obviously, given it was Friday night, they were full but happy to call us when we were up so we went next door to Sweet & Vicious to slurp giant frozen margs. By the time we sat down we were more than merry. Do you know what it's like to attempt to order for 8 ravenous people? With a menu that you could quite feasibly fancy all of? No thanks. I relinquished entire control of our ordering to the waiter, who walked us through his selects to a chorus of "YES!"es. Tiny deep-fried quails eggs were minature son-in-law eggs - you know the ones, in a tamarind sauce, perfect for popping in whole.

Tiny little riblets, marinated in shrimp paste and deep fried were attacked with urgent hands and stripped of their flesh. Grilled baby octopus arrived charred and tender, tentacles waving, served with a fresh incandescent green chilli relish. A special of king crab claws arrived with a mild red curry dip; our West Coast Canadian was non-plussed given its ubiquity back home, but we savoured every moment. I wonder how much they cost.

Khao Soi noodles were properly spicy, tempered by coconut milk but still emphatically hot. Not an easy one to share between 8, but by now the team was starting to flag so I could secretly scoff this one. Crunchy salads revived the palates in between dishes, especially the sweetbreads on crispy noodles and various herbs. Pork belly was braised and served in a sour tamarind curry with a body of squid, stuffed with pork and herbs. Me? I started to flag here, and still the food kept coming, and still I kept eating. Finally, the skate over rice noodles (khanom jeen) with wild ginger sauce was the end of our meal, and unfortunately it was a rather limp finish; all a bit bland, floppy and wet. I could have had palate fatigue by then, but others agreed.

I barely managed to fit another beer in after all that, but I have no regrets; the meal was a riot of flavours, spiciness, and inventiveness. Our eyes widened at the bill - $70 a head, with rather a lot of wine - but actually only because it was our most costly meal there. We'd pay that in a heart-beat in London.

Uncle Boons on Urbanspoon

I read somewhere (probably here) that Shanghai Cafe Deluxe serve excellent soup dumplings (siu long bao / xiao long bao). Since here in London there's virtually impossible to find a decent one, it was all I could do to stop myself from going every day.

Forget the wontons in spicy sauce. They're lukewarm and doughy. The XLB, however - yes. We ordered two steamers, one of the classic pork, the other pork and crab. My hungover friend couldn't handle the crab version which was a total win for greedy little me. Scoop a little vinegar and ginger into your spoon. Place dumpling carefully in spoon. If you're nervous, bite top off dumpling and slurp. But for maximum gratification? WAIT for it to cool a little, pop the whole thing in and savour that glorious dumpling burst.

Shanghai Café Deluxe on Urbanspoon

"If you want to go anywhere that's decent to eat in New York City, you, like, have to wait in line for two hours for it. ANYWHERE GOOD is the same." This whinge came from the guy who lived in our Air BnB apartment who moped around looking so haughtily miserable all the time we renamed him Sad Sack and suppressed giggles at his eye-rolling dourness. "Oh yeaaaah and Mission Chinese? Get there at 5pm or forget it."


It was Monday. Our flight was imminent, and Mission Chinese was closed for the day. Our solution? Breakfast at Mission Cantina, the Mexican outpost. I'll still continually kick myself that I didn't try the kung pao pastrami, but the Vietnamese breakfast at Mission Cantina - I know, it's confusing... Vietnamese breakfast? At the Mexican place? - was pretty excellent.  

We flung open the door to the restaurant and came face-to-face with none other than Danny Bowien, the chef and co-founder of the Missions. I was a bit star-struck. We were led to a table and left to order from a hearty menu. I wish I'd had a stronger appetite, but well, we were on Day Four of a hefty trip. Otherwise I'd have smashed that heritage steak tartare at 9am but instead plumped for the duck porridge, their Vietnamese style of congee. Before our meals, we were given a couple of complimentary eggs, fried till the whites were crisp and drizzled with Maggi sauce. Prawn crackers were perfect to dip into, and midway through mouthfuls of egg I wondered why they'd only given us two between the three of us.

Oops. Greedy me. Mine already came with one. The congee was warming and smooth, slightly sticky and studded with shreds of duck. Peanuts and pickled vegetables were provided to season each mouthful. The prawn toast was actually half a baguette smeared sparingly - it was a little greasy and soon became too rich, though. A salted plum soda was incredibly refreshing; I'm replicating it as soon as I get my hands on them plums. 

My friends both went for the chicken pho 'Hanoi style'. I'm not sure what that constitutes (YES I DO! Recipe is here), but it came in a vat big enough to bathe in. The usual star anise-scent was largely absent here, instead focused on a bright clean broth, plenty of noodles and poached chicken. The accompanying chilli sauce was mandatory. No one managed to finish their bowls. Make sure you use the loo - it is awesome.

Fortified, we headed back out to the freezing sleet. 10 minutes later, we ducked into a nail salon. SOOO New York dahlink (my first mani-pedi in all of my 28 years).

Mission Cantina on Urbanspoon

Bodily grooming sorted, we headed back out for the whipping wind and driving rain. Thoughts soon turned to lunch, and happily Empellon Al Pastor was nearby. It was the sort of place I wish we'd gone to for a night out, rather than a Monday lunchtime; it had that feeling of yes-you'll-definitely-get-hammered-on-tequila-here. I looked longingly at the drinks list - Loaded Micheladas! - goddamnit. We remained on good behaviour and tackled the taco menu instead. 

Al pastor - that is, pork cooked on a spit with pineapple - is their namesake, so that had to be tried. It did not disappoint; tender, juicy spiced pork with a wafer of barbecued pineapple on a floppy, fresh corn taco. Tacos needn't be better than this. 

Just in case they were, I tried a tripe, beef tongue and bacon taco which was good, if a bit indistinguishable of the animal parts. Nopales (that's cactus), arbol chile and queso fresco (pictured above) was light and welcome relief from the rich meats. The sides are decent (and massive) too - we tried the braised kale and the drunken beans, both heavily spiked with meat. This is drinking food. We should have got our drink on.

Empellòn Al Pastor on Urbanspoon

Our last day. A mild sense of alarm had set in. We hadn't had any proper barbecue. No Fette Sau's. No Hill Country. It was last chance saloon and nothing was standing in our way.

Mighty Quinn's was entirely different to how I expected it to be. I had imagined some sort of basement, perhaps some filament lightbulbs, slinging bourbon, at least some cocktails for god's sake. I think I've been in London too long. What it was was an airy restaurant, a lively and pleasant service counter, plenty of tables and importantly, no queue. In your FACE, Sad Sack!

The menu is simple. Choose your meat by sandwich, naked or weight, choose a side if you wish, and choose your pickles.

Obviously it was essential for me to have all the pickles. They were bright and perky, still retaining a rainbow of colour. Vinegared or mayo coleslaw was also offered - obviously vinegared - it was just a shame that all the pickles, the slaw and our incredible broccoli salad (dressed with buttermilk - these Americans KNOW salad) was all fridge cold. Slightly hurting the teeth kind of cold.

Beef brisket (above), pulled pork and spare ribs were our selects and I think I won - they all had good flavour, but I find pulled pork a little one-note and the brisket could have been more tender. Barbecue and hot sauces on the table were crucial accompaniments for both the meat and the fries. 

Mighty Quinn's Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Thus concludes another New York Marathon. This handy spreadsheet might help you out on your trip - please do let me know if it did as it has been compiled over several years, so it's nice to hear.

Until 2016!