This post was first published in February 2012.
So-called fusion food rarely impresses me. Partly, this is because it’s a label that is abused nearly as badly as the gastropub designation: liberally distribute sweet chili sauce, coconut milk, and harissa across your menu and apparently you’re serving up a culinary revolution. Yet at its best, fusion really can work and is capable of elevating food to new heights. One of my most memorable dining experiences in London was at The Providores, while probably the best restaurant meal I can remember (admittedly, there are some I can’t) was at Paris’s Ze Kitchen Gallerie.
Balancing flavours that don’t normally happily co-habit the same kitchen, let alone plate, is a delicate art. As a result, it’s something that you’d think is ill-suited to the rough and ready street food scene. Yet anyone who has sampled a Korean-style slider at Kimchi Cult will tell you that this is not an iron rule. Sticking to the basics and doing the simple things very well, anything is possible anywhere. If ever this conviction needed validation, then my experience last Saturday at a slightly bitty new churchyard market on a mind-numbingly miserable afternoon provided it in droves.
Like burgers, I have a bit of a fetish for burritos. And like the market for beef patties, London’s burrito scene is getting increasingly saturated. That’s not at all a bad thing – I’d honestly like it so saturated that there was a Burger & Lobster or Lucky Chip on every corner. But it does mean that the excitement value that came with, say, the brief appearance of #Meateasy in New Cross is slightly diminished. So while I’m itching to get me a Mother Flipper down in Brockley, too many more bright young burgers and I won’t be able to make the most of finally having Ben Denner’s creations on my doorstop. So too with the great Tex-Mex export. On the street, it’s pretty much neck and neck between Luardos and Daddy Donkey; in the bricks and mortar realm, there’s a plethora of options, with Chilango and Benito’s Hat being particularly memorable, and Tortilla especially bad, of late.
I don’t eat as many burritos as I do burgers, so I’m less assertive when it comes to declaring what kitchen produces London’s best. At the same time, my wet-socked Saturday afternoon jaunt through the new Hackney Homemade FOOD market and, more specifically, my munch at Chula Fused Foods may just have provided me with the answer, or at least an opinion on the matter. For sure, Vinod Patel, Chula’s head honcho, makes a mean-ass burrito. It showcases both his Indian roots and his appreciation of the form, which he developed in San Francisco and honed during a stint at Chipotle in London. More than that, it’s a thoroughly well-developed concept. If you think about it, there’s no reason why the burrito, when you strip it down – rice, beans, and slow-cooked meat in a tortilla – wouldn’t translate perfectly to an Indian reinterpretation, as all the ingredients are staples of (or closely related to staples of) the sub-continental dinner table.
Vinod himself points out that Indian cuisine doesn’t translate perfectly to every fast food medium, noting the so-so nature of Bhangra Burger’screations. I tend to agree: they are interesting, for sure, but the spicing does risk overpowering the natural flavour of the meat and the flatbread-based assembly is controversial to say the least. Perhaps it’s the Bostonian in me, but a burger is one of the few foods never to be tampered with. Cheese and lettuce every time, no question, and I personally like tomato but see why others don’t. Bacon can be a nice addition at times, while a chili topping is about as far out as I can go before my Hawthornian puritanical streak exposes itself.
So while the basis of the composition remains Mexican, the ingredients and flavours are straight from Asia: there’s no mole in the chicken keema, nor is there an avocado in sight. An Indian-style burrito works because a burrito is a type of wrap and most food combinations lend themselves to being packaged in this manner. But a Chula burrito transcends mere acceptability because Vinod’s nuanced approach to fusion sandwich-making results in a wrap that would satisfy palates from Goa to Guadalajara. The rice is simply spiced with mustard seeds, thereby allowing it to serve its purpose as a sponge which absorbs all the other flavours. The red kidney bean concoction is a brilliant take on Mexican refried beans, while the curries themselves would not be out of place in the capital’s best Indian restaurants: my chicken keema was simmered down perfectly, the meat having developed that somewhat contradictory chewy-tender texture remiscent of carnitas while boasting refreshingly unique flavours.
In fact, he was kind enough to let me taste all of his curries, and there’s honestly not a dud in the lot. As many of you know, I am a die-hard meat man, but even the veggie option, methi paneer, would have enticed me in the absence of flesh. The salads are all stunningly fresh and bring the perfect crunch, while Mr. Patel’s special handmade hot sauce/chutney clocks in at just the right point of the Scoville scale: fiery enough to rouse the taste buds, clear the sinuses, and ease a hangover without going down the route of pure capsicumic masochism. Throw it all together and you get an orgy of beautiful flavours and textures, although my food styling on this occassion is admittedly less than perfect…
At this point, I’ll adopt my traditional fence-sitting position and say that that it can’t be deemed London’s best burrito because no such thing exists except in the eye of the stall-holder. Also, the fact remains that the closest I’ve even been to South and Central America is a little hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Allston where you had to order in Spanish, which slightly undermines the authority with which I speak. Still, I’ll grow some cojones and hop down for a brief moment to say that it is by far London’s most interesting burrito and that its unique flavour-take makes it one of our best sandwiches. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the Hackney Homemade FOOD market will make it on to Vinod’s regular rota, though he does hit up three different locations each week. He mentioned the possibility of recognition at the next British Street Food Awards and I hope this comes to fruition, because with all respect to Jun Tanaka and Street Kitchen, ‘seared boneless fillets of plaice with roasted beetroots, crushed potatoes, mixed leaves and horseradish dressing,’ isn’t really street food – it’s restaurant food being eaten on the pavement.
In fairness, I should note that it’s frequently delicious, has a fair price point, and that Mr Tanaka’s efforts have been hugely important in raising awareness about the potential for quality street food in London. But mobile food vendors don’t do three-course menus – hell, some barely do napkins. What Chula Fused Foods offers is genuine, pure street food at its unshowy best. Given my ambivalent relationship with fusion concepts, part of me didn’t want to like it. But I couldn’t help myself. It’s so good I’m a bit worried it’s taken me this long to find out about it – am I that far off the metropolis’s gastronomic pulse? I’m tempted to think that it’s that little bit harder for those traders that fall outside of the eat.st catchment to get noticed, especially given the way the collective has taken London by storm recently. So let’s hope that Vinod and Chula get the recognition they deserve as they’re on to something really, really wicked. More specifically, let’s hope that I’m able to grab another one of their burritos in the near future without really having to venture too far out bed…