What is it with all the Queen’s men? In an earlier piece on great sandwiches in London, I mentioned my British friend Craig, who now lives in LA and told me “there are no great sandwiches in London.” At a recent TV Academy event, I met Steve, a young English director, who said the exact same thing. Even though he admitted that he loved the Brick Lane shop I trumpet below, he later emailed and said: “[I would] argue that 5 or 6 places out of 1000 still means we have a long way to go before we catch up with the US of A.” Then today, adding insult to injury, my friend Colin, who is here visiting from his home in Shepherd’s Bush, said that eating at certain places in Los Angeles is like a religious experience to him! Is he in the same LA I am? London is clearly having a difficult time shedding its age-old reputation as a town where baked beans on toast is a gourmet meal. But listen to me, Craig, Steve, Colin and assorted infidels – you’re out of date and worshipping at the wrong temples! Herewith, more great London sandwiches to try to convert you:
BRICK LANE BEIGEL BAKE, 159 Brick Lane, Spitalfields, E1
(“Beigel” – yes, that’s just one of the ways they spell it, but on none of their signs is it spelled “bagel”.)
Once upon a time I was married to an Englishman, a Cockney fellow, who expanded my London to include the East End, which is incredibly trendy now. But then it reminded me of the NY Lower East Side of my childhood – a transitioning, working-class neighborhood that had been home to waves of Jewish immigrants in the first half of the 20th century – along with the native Cockneys. Among the recipes the Jews brought with them was salt beef, which is good old-fashioned corned beef here. Now, despite being thin and health-conscious, my ex was also a foodie of sorts (I say “of sorts” because he would actually stop eating when he was full!), with a gift for finding great wines and great restaurants in unexpected places. On my first trip to see him in London, he introduced me to some of the food he loved in the area where he grew up playing in the bombed-out ruins. They were the most unpretentious, yet unforgettable places. I will never forget the deeply comforting pie and mash with parsley liquor, and my first (and last) taste of jellied eels.
The shop that struck the deepest chord, however, is the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. For a girl raised in NY, their bagels aren’t textured enough, and on occasion the meat is not as tender as at other times, but the intense flavor and density of the combination somehow make evaluating the parts superfluous. They have many sandwiches – and yes, I admit I should have sampled the bagel and lox by now – but since eating my first salt beef sandwich, I’ve never wanted to try any of the others, because the salt beef satisfies something primal. It’s deep, dark pink….sliced thick and hot…packed sloppily into a bagel…and squirted with super hot English mustard (unless you ask for mild). It’s salty, chewy, brawny, and scrumptious.
The shop is open 24 hours. There is almost always a line. There is nowhere to sit. But it’s fun and worth the adventure to push east beyond Covent Garden and the comfort zone of most U.S. visitors’ London. Today the neighborhood is Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi/young hipster. A building further south on Brick Lane tells the local story: it was first a private home, then a synagogue, then a church, then a mosque, and now the Museum of Immigration. The Brick Lane Beigel Bake, on the other hand, has remained unchanged for 100 years...an enduring gift from an ephemeral union.
RANOUSH JUICE, 86 High Street Kensington, W8 and other locations
I found this place by accident late on a Sunday night, after arriving in London with my starving, 12-year-old niece. We headed for Wagamama, because I knew she’d be happy with a big bowl of ramen soup, but they literally turned off the lights as we came through the door. We dashed across the street to the crowded but mediocre Italian chain restaurant that I was hoping to avoid, and luckily they said “we’re closed.” So we continued along the High Street and came upon a narrow little place called Ranoush Juice, which had 3 tables in the back and an immaculate, standing-room only sandwich bar in front. My niece was unsure, but it was late, and we didn’t know if we’d find anything else open, so after watching the chicken and lamb shwarmas crackle enticingly on their spits, she took the plunge and ordered a chicken pita sandwich.
Now, pita sandwiches like this are a dime a dozen in London, but this was better…way, way better…than all the other darn good chicken pitas at all the other darn good Lebanese places in London. It was filled with juicy chunks of roasted chicken breast, sliced pickles, garlic sauce and a luscious hot (but not too hot) sauce. The pickles and hot sauce are the grace notes that vault this sandwich into celestial territory. There seems to be some inconsistency as to whether they always add the hot sauce, but luckily they put it on this first time, and it was spectacular – so remember to ask for it if they forget.
Ranoush is part of a chain, and generally, I avoid chain restaurants. I don’t actually object to the concept – just to bad food – but this is one of my exceptions. Ranoush is the small, store-front division of the larger, more elegant Maroush restaurants family. There are multiple branches of both all over the city.
GIGGLY PIG, Lyric Square, King St., W6 and other markets around town; shop in Romford, Essex
Strictly speaking, Giggly Pig is not a sandwich vendor. It’s actually a mobile butcher shop, at a different market every day. I visited the Tuesday market in Lyric Square, Hammersmith, but you can find the full schedule on their website.
Giggly Pig’s slogan is “There’s no fat or crap in our sausages!” – honestly, that’s it. That basic, unvarnished attitude originates with Giggly Pig founder, Tracy Mackness, whose basic, unvarnished story is that she made some crappy choices and landed in prison on drug charges. While inside, Tracy opted for real swine over the human kind and decided to study animal husbandry – learning to raise and slaughter rare saddle back pigs. When she got out, she rewrote her life story by doing the only legal thing she knew how to do to earn a living: she started her own butcher shop. Tracy is not the sort of woman likely to gossip and giggle with you at her market stall, but she knows a helluva lot about making good sausages – 50+ kinds – and roasting whole hogs for catered affairs. I was enjoying a tasty Cumberland sausage sandwich at the market, when her outgoing and loquacious boyfriend convinced me to take some of their unsmoked, dry-cured, back bacon, which I took to my friend’s house, where I made a grilled bacon and tomato sandwich – a knock-out. Next morning I made bacon and eggs and groaned with pleasure. English bacon is entirely different than our thin strips of fatty bacon – it’s lean and meaty. This was thick, tender, delicious, and deeply satisfying….maybe the best bacon I ever had. Now who was the giggly pig?
London is also dotted with little shops that are exclusively devoted to sandwiches – usually just a narrow counter with stools on one side and a deli counter on the other, filled with meats, cheeses, veggies and a vast array of condiments, manned by two or three guys doing nothing but making your sandwich combo of choice. Things used to be writ in stone in these places – unchangeable combinations that were foreign to tourists (who knew what a Ploughman’s lunch was?) But enough time has passed and enough Americans have come through that the sandwich men are used to our picky, personal, entitled requests – and quite happy to let us have it our way. So next trip, I guess I’ve gotta take my Englishmen in hand and show them the stuff that makes me say “holy moly”.
Ilene Amy Berg (aka The Berger Queen) is a television producer, antique hunter, New York and London lover, and intrepid food adventuress.