Digbeth

Baked in Brick, Digbeth

My dining history at Baked in Brick is a lengthy one that goes back some way. In Feb 2016, when his street food had not long started I made a point of saying you should keep a firm eye on him, noting ‘the man, the mini, and the food are going places’. Then, a year later at another pop-up after winning Best Street Food, I make the bold statement that ‘Lee’s cooking is right up there with the best’, finishing the piece with ‘the man I said was going places has truly arrived. And only an idiot would miss it’. I have featured him thrice more properly on my blog, a piece on Digbeth Dining Club, another on Sear & Smoke, and most recently at the Independent Birmingham Festival, watching the mini take more awards and the food evolve. Apologies for rehashing my old work like a desperate ‘ICYMI’ tweet, but I always knew it would be good because I know my shit when it comes to food. I’ve been there from the start, I haven’t rocked up at the trophy bus parade like a phoney Leicester City fan because he won a few things and became fashionable to like.

And here he is, less than four years from the first gigs at Digbeth Dining Club, in a permanent home in the Custard Factory. The dining room is instantly recognisable to anyone who has eaten the street food. The bar frontage to the left is the same wood that houses the tent counter, the steel girding above the same as the van that drove to Berlin to take the title. The far wall has clever nods to the backstory in vibrant artwork, with the red Mini Cooper peering out towards the diner. There had to be a mini. To the side is an enclosed terrace where we had our second meal here. The sun loves this space almost as much as I do.

Before I get on to the pizza that dominated our two visits, let’s be very clear; a pizzeria this is not. Yes, it has an oven intended for such things, but there is much more to the cooking than that. On our first visit we start with a tomato salad dotted with tapenade and croutons, on to which a textbook tomato essence is poured. It is all beautifully fresh, with just a hint of verdant basil to lift it all. Our second visit has us ordering a huge bulb of burrata with the same components minus the tomato essence; the burrata is creamy enough. It is so good that I forget to take a picture. What an awful blogger I am. No wonder they all hate me.

But those pizzas. Christ on a bike, they are so very good. I’m sticking my neck out now and saying these are Brum’s best on account of the basic principles; quality toppings, that leopard print scorched base and a pliable crust. Most conventional has folds of Serrano ham and shavings of Lincolnshire Poacher. Another has pork and fennel meatballs and a yellow pepper ketchup whose metallic notes sits perfectly between the sweet and the acidic. Most supreme is the white pizza, a daring blend of smoked chicken and boulangere potato on béchamel sauce. It’s carb on carb, a pool party in Carbella. It also tastes like a chicken and dauphinois potato sandwich. Absolute filth. We love it.

No visit to Baked in Brick could miss out the beef shin calzone, seemingly feed on steroids for how much it is grown on to the plate here. Once the crust has been cut into the tangle of beef and wild mushroom ragu has the deep flavour of wine from a lengthy marinade and a long peppery finish. A stilton dip on the side has a little cayenne pepper and lemon juice but is ultimately there to add more umami to a plate of food already drenched in it. I simply cant think of a better way to spend £11 right now. Try it and you’ll understand why it has won every award known to man including the Noble Peace Prize, the Pulitzer and The Golden Boot.

I am yet to get round to ordering dessert, mostly because I leave on both occasions with a box of crusts to chow on at home, though the present choice is a crème brulee or a brownie. A meal here will cost between £15-25 depending on how greedy you happen to be, which is astonishing value given the quality. And now the score, for which I have thought hard about. I think it sits somewhere between a nine and ten, but I’m going full marks for this reason; Baked In Brick is integral to the development of this city’s food scene, further proof that some of the finest eateries in Birmingham have stemmed from trading on the streets. And it is only going to get better when the chicken tikka roll rolls on to the menu alongside the slow cooked lamb. I have long been a fan of the food, though it is obvious he belongs within bricks and mortar. The Custard Factory, Digbeth and Birmingham have all just gained an absolute gem of a restaurant.

10/10 

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Independent Birmingham Festival, Digbeth

I had intended to start this brief piece on a self-deprecating note for our city. One that gently chugs along with the piss-taking from the rest of the country, about a city centre that’s perceived to be a concrete fortress and a dodgy accent that actually belongs ten miles north west of us. But I’m done with that. I’m done with anything that sets Birmingham at a detriment to anywhere else on the globe. We are growing every day. With game-changing pieces of modern architecture now sitting in juxtaposition with pieces of history. With a diverse melting pot of culture, smells, and sounds. With some of the best food to be found in the country with the most handsome, charming, and multi-award winning food blogger writing about them. Only an idiot who has not been here in over a decade, or worse, the commonly spotted Jealous Mancunian, would tell you otherwise. Birmingham is brilliant in almost every single way. It’s my home, so yes I have bias, but it really is.

Shouting about Birmingham a little more than the next man is Joe Schuppler of Independent Birmingham. Hi Joe. He runs a little business doing huge things for our indie scene. Now, with the help of some seasoned pros, he is championing the very businesses his card supports with Independent Birmingham Festival, this the third within a year and the second at Digbeth’s The Bond. We end up going both days, the latter to eat off the hangover caused by the former. I’m looking at you, Loki wine, for this with your mighty fine Malbec.

There are stalls that sell nice stuff from which I buy a badge that I later lose and a donut that I quickly use to fill a gap in my belly. There are cocktails from the brilliant Rob Wood and craft beers from Tilt. There are countless others all showcasing the tiny elements that together make Birmingham what it is. But I’m here to eat and you are probably here to read about that. So straight to the chase, at Low’n’Slow where the best food of the weekend was had. Pork belly from Blytheburgh farm, cooked over a makeshift fire on the ground. The meat is glorious; smokey, with enough bite and fattiness to serve as a reminder that this once was a living animal. There are blistered potatoes cooked in pork fat with the unmistakable back note of bone marrow, and a salsa slightly bitter from burning it’s components over coals. This is proper grown up barbecue, with real skill. It’s a ready made restaurant dish served from some smoking embers on concrete.

One of many restaurants with a stand here is El Borracho de Oro, a place I’ve stated my love for on many previous occasions. Today we have those golden croquetas filled with quality ham and a toastie that has manchego and sobrasda oozing out of every edge. Those toasties are a special at their present 1000 Trades residency – go try them. Fat Snags are relatively new to the street food world, impeccably sourcing Lashfords sausages and sandwiching them between buns. We try one with a smartly judged salsa of roquito and jalapeños, smothered in one of those silky American cheese sauces that refuses to go quietly into the mouth. I’m super impressed. I’ll be back for more soon.

Baked in Brick is here, a few streets away from its soon-to-be-opening restaurant. We try a ramen debuting for the first time, that is already better than any of the ramen at the specialist ramen shop. The ox tail and miso stock is upstaged by smokey spider steak slices, a tangle of ox tail meat and silky noodles. Best of all is a salty and rich soy egg, golden yolk just transitioning from liquid to a more solid state. A lot of work has gone into this and it will only get better.

Sunday sees suitable hangover food. A pizza from Peel and Stone has excellent ‘nduja and fennel salami for toppings on a base that was slightly too doughy to be perfect. We finish up with a burger from Original Patty Men, the beef just blushing pink, patty crowned with three types of cheese, jalapeño relish and barbecue sauce. Those boys know how to pull a burger together. It sorts me out a treat.

Claire buys jewellery, I buy enough wine to swim in, confirming that when it comes to frittering cash away, we’re a good team to have around. It was a great weekend, superbly organised, with a wonderfully curated live music program. More importantly it showcases the incredible independent scene that goes some way making this city so amazing. Believe in Brum.

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The next Independent Birmingham Festival has been announced for July. Book your tickets here; https://www.designmynight.com/birmingham/whats-on/food-drink/independent-birmingham-festival-at-aston-hall

Kanteen, Digbeth

The area in and around The Custard Factory is one that seems to drift in and out of cultural importance in Birmingham. My Dad remembers when it really was a Custard Factory, worked in by his friends, when they would meet in The Old Crown for a pint and whatever lads in the 60’s did back then. My first introduction was thirty years afterwards, during the dingy hip hop nights at The Medicine Bar, and then again some years afterwards at the ill-fated Alfie Birds. Now, it feels rejuvenated and ready to take on the city again. Old Crown withstanding, Digbeth Dining Club started it, Ghetto Golf, Clink, and others have followed. Once again the area has a purpose. The Custard Factory is thriving.

It is at this point I pull back the curtains and reveal Kanteen in all it’s glory. And, believe me, it is glorious. It has purpose and a desire to feed the community at prices that work out to be no more than a Pret sandwich. The glass fronted space has depth on the inside. It is cosy and smart: almost homely. They do stuff on bread and stuff with eggs in the morning, then later on turn to hot stuff in boxes and cold stuff in boxes. There is a quiet emphasis on feeding all forms of diets and keeping it healthy. Please erase that last sentence from your mind. The food here has flavour in abundance and that is all that matters.

I come with Hubbie-to-be Greg, who arrives in a ravenous mood having recently only been surviving on Slimming World meals, whatever they may be. We order widely; two from the eggs section and three from the bread, which I can now confirm is three too many dishes for two people. I’ll get the disappointing dish out of the way first: A mass of kale on toast with torn bits of burrata and gremolata. Tearing apart the burrata into small pieces has lost the cheeses integrity – the oozy cream quality that is buried like treasure in the centre has disappeared on to the chopping board and the toast below. It’s nice, and the gremolata is impeccably made, but they should cut costs and move towards a mozzarella.

But everything else is bloody brilliant. Black pudding from Clonakilty has more earthy depths because of chopped hazlenuts, then quickly pulled back up by slices apple. Its an inspired bit of topping for wedge of sourdough toast. It has light and shade. It eats like a dream. Likewise the chorizo, red pepper and goats curd on toast. There is a reason this combination is everywhere; it works. This has poise and balance, with high quality chunks of chorizo. And it’s under a fiver. I told you it was great value.

Both of the dishes ordered from the egg section have them poached so that the whites have just set and the yolk becomes self-saucing. On one the egg sits on folds of Serrano ham with broken potatoes and tomato. Lemon aioli gives it an almost Benedicts edge. The other has merguez, the spiced lamb sausage native to Northern Africa, braised in a cassoulet style tomato sauce, with that gremolata returning to stop it all getting a bit rich. I can’t pick between the two, so have one for breakfast and the other for lunch. It’s brunch. You’re allowed to.

Replete, we take a peanut butter brownie home that Greg assures me was delicious, though could well still be hidden with his PS3 and porn stash in his forbidden items drawer. Walking back we discuss the merits of Kanteen for which there are many. What may read on paper as a collection of healthy things piled onto one another is in reality a finely tuned wholesome feed that just happens to also be good for you. Kanteen is something different to the current offering and something very good indeed.

8/10

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Digbeth Dining Club, Birmingham 

I remember the first time I went to Digbeth Dining Club. It was a dreary day, cold and overcast, when summer promised much and delivered very little. We sat on the few benches outside, shivering and exposed to the elements, supping on beer and wondering what the hype was about. I remember very little about the food, other than a Cambodian pork dish from Canoodle that was ordered at the counter and hand delivered to our bench by the chap who made it. That was great; vibrant, clean, and a reason in itself to return on a more cheery evening. If someone would have told me on that evening that Digbeth Dining Club would go on to shape the casual restaurant scene in Birmingham over the next five years I would have spat my pint out of that massive gob of mine.

And yet, it has. Without DDC (herewith known as) we would have no The Meat Shack, no Original Patty Men, and no Indian Streatery to visit. Imagine that. No, actually don’t, it will give you nightmares. And we wouldn’t as a city be able to lay claim to the Britain’s ‘best of the best’, it’s best burger, and now, more recently, Europe’s best. I’ve gone a lot recently because now feels as good a time as ever to tell you about a few of my favourite traders. In the effort of a full disclaimer, I should point out that I personally know both of the founders. James has got me a beer in the past and Jack hasn’t. Neither will give me a DDC Gold Card and both would never dream of giving me, El Blaggo, anything for free. Take this at face value all you want, but all of the dishes have come out of my own pocket.

Hot off the European victory, Baked in Brick seems a good place to start. In the last fourteen months Mr Brick has pretty much cleaned up; British Street Food Awards Best Main Dish 2016, with Best of the Best the same year. This year he came second overall in the same awards, getting him to Berlin where he won the big one. I’ve written about Baked in Brick at length before, but it’s safe to say that his food is about as good as street food gets, whether that be his chicken tikka wrap or beef shin calzone. If you happen to be there when the red mini is, eat the food – it will not disappoint.

This year’s other victor is Flying Cows, winner of Best Burger at the UK street food finals. The burger here is a virtue to farming; the Dexter beef coming direct from his father’s farm. It’s loosely packed and ferociously seared so that the aged cow is the star, whichever burger is ordered. In a city that has made demigods out of burger traders who started off at DDC, Flying Cows is destined to be the next patty shaped success story.

I have mad love for Bourneville Waffle Company in a way that could invoke a restraining order. The warm waffles could be topped with brownie pieces, or addictive bits of fudge made with biscuit paste. It all works. Newer to me is Street Chef, who makes chips out of halloumi. I am fan of anyone that can combine chips and cheese without resorting to poutine. What really makes him stand out is the mushroom ketchup it is served with that brims with heat and attitude. I would like a bottle, please.

The folk of Birmingham would lynch me if I never mentioned Low’n’Slow, so here we are. Andy is a true maestro of flames and frankly shits all over any of the city’s permanent fixtures that serve smoked meat. His chilli brisket burger is a good place to start, which has layer-upon-layer of flavour sandwiched between buns. More recently I had a plate of pork off him that I took to Twitter to say was world class. World. Class. Working muscles end up as tangles of sweet meat and more expensive cuts fired to an accurate medium rare. Low’n’Slow is revered across the city for a singular reason; the man can really cook.

Buddha Belly has a former Masterchef contestant at the helm, firing off the kind of authentic food that gives Siamais nightmares about them opening a restaurant of their own. Have the yellow curry with chicken. Eat the yellow curry with chicken. Order another and Thank me afterwards. And Canoodle is still going strong, all those years after that pork dish stole my attention. We recently had Korean fried chicken and, more impressively, their signature beef rendang that melted to a sweet nothing.


There are others, some I’ve tried and some I haven’t yet. You see I went to the last DDC with the intention of having a Libertine Burger and ended up with tacos from Low’n’Slow. This happens all the time. I’m not so much a creature of habit, but a creature that hates disappointment. If I know it’s good I’ll return time again. I’ll get to Libertine eventually.

The point is that DDC feels more important than ever. They are attracting the very best week on week, providing the foundations for these vendors to expand or look to permanent fixtures of their own. It’s inevitable that the next crop of success stories will come from some of the above, and all deserve it. To the DDC class of 2017 keep up the good work. I salute everyone of you.

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Rico Libre, Birmingham

 

I’ve waxed lyrical about my love of Rico Libre before. Putting aside the emotional connection I have to the building, for me it’s one of the first places I recommend to anyone who asks where they should eat in Birmingham.  Its uncomplicated and unpretentious, astoundingly cheap, and always welcoming.  Most importantly they know flavour.  There is no room for daintiness here, everything is boldly seasoned and spiced, the pepper grinder on a constant rotation.  Its authentic in the way that Spanish food does not pull any punches.

This was, I think, my sixth visit to the old Barn Street dinner since I first ate here, the food  evolving slowly and consistently. With a relatively compact menu we look to much of the same parts for comfort.  The chicken and chorizo dish has become a different beast, more pronounced in taste, more saucy, both literally and metaphorically.  The halloumi dish working even more flavour on to the bland cheese with the help of blistered peppers and gently caramelised onion.  I often think some of the strongest work is done here without meat; the bravas a simple yet staggering ode to tomato, garlic and paprika over crisped cubes of potato.   My favourite is the aubergine, long slices salted and then griddled, folded over a rustic salsa and topped with the fieriest of red mojo sauces. The sauce is native to the canary islands where I have since learned the chef here honed his skills.  The locals taught him well.

It’s not all perfect. A special of pork belly is a hearty slice of softly braised meat let down by a overly sweet reduction of red wine and coca cola, whilst I forgive the queenie scallops for having the roe attached because the mango salsa brings everything together with its sweetness, acidity and heat.  We’re quickly back on track with the meatballs, compact and err… meaty, in a smoky sauce that begs to have the bowl wiped clean with flat breads smothered in garlic.  Come to think of it, all of the sauces have the same effect. Greaseless deep fried fillets of cod in a seasoned batter finish us off with their generosity.

All of this comes at a price almost incomparable with anywhere else in the city. Dishes range generally from £3.50 to just over a fiver, throw in its BYOB policy and you’ll struggle to spend twenty quid a head before they roll you out of the door.  It’s crazy value.  I would be here every week if I wasn’t eating in mediocre restaurants elsewhere to keep this blog content afloat.  Others are far more wise.  On the night we visited we were surrounded by regular customers, all known individually by the chef who pops out occasionally, or the owner constantly doing the rounds to check that everything is okay.  Of course it is.  Its way better than ‘okay’.  It’s a city gem, nestled in the back streets of Digbeth with no care other than to feed people well.  And my favourite part of Rico Libre?  They have no idea just how good they really are.

Rico Libre Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

The Karczma, Digbeth

Words cannot fully justify just how depressing the building which houses The Karczma is. It’s the kind of sixties architecture that I thought we were trying to eradicate in the city. It’s a sad slab of square grey concrete in a forgotten part of town. It’s Eastenders on Christmas Day.  Inside could not be more different – its an ode to the inns of the Tatra mountains, seen through the tainted eyes of someone who misses them.  There is straw thatched ceilings and fake fur hides adorning the backs of benches.  Walls are distressed pink.  Polish music plays in the background.  I found it difficult to not laugh, despite being fully aware that whoever designed the space did so with serious intention.

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But the food.  Oh My, the food.  It’s a wholesome exploration of Eastern Europe family food, at all times satisfying and occasionally astonishing.  We start with a communal helping of bread and lard, a concept you may be familiar with, being the 2016 Michelin di rigueur of bread courses.  Here it is not being dictated by fashion, but by a culinary history and frugalness that makes use of all of the animal. More importantly it tastes great, helped by pickles full of zing and bite.  There is a blood red beetroot soup, barszcz, or, as you may know it, borscht.  Whatever the name, its a tribute to fermentation, soured and bright in flavour and colour.  Two pastry rolls filled with a duxelle of mushrooms feel like they are there to justify the £6 price, though they succeed in adding a further depth to bowl already swimming in it.

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Pierogi are delicate filled dumplings, almost translucent.  Each one is a powerhouse of flavour, from the cheese, potato and onion, to the minced pork and beef which has a lightness that alludes its appearance.  One of these is a hefty starter in its own right; here three of them are under £8.  Another starter of smoked cheese would be the only duff note.  There is too much of the smoke which wipes out the sharp cranberry compote.

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A whole glazed pork knuckle was as comforting as it was daunting.  The burnished skin peeling back to reveal a thick layer of fat and meat which pulls from the bone at the slightest suggestion.  Pots of horseradish and mustard are there to provide heat, sauerkraut for acidity, and thick chips for the plain greedy.  I take home half for dinner later that evening. Also taken home in the same doggy bag was half of “marina’s breasts”; two domed hulks of formed chicken breast meat, stuffed with mushrooms and glazed with cheese.  Its Chicken Kiev with a salacious new identity.  I joke to the waiter about wanting more of Marina’s breasts – he tells me that she is working in the kitchen.  I joke no more.

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We finish with an apple pie, admirable in flavour but several courses too many, because, by now we are ready for a lie-down to let it all sink in.  A friend of mine with Polish descent who joined me at The Karczma told me a story of a trip he made to his fathers home village in the 80’s:  There the men were fed first, followed by the women, with the children picking up the last of the food.  If The Karczma truly is representative of Polish home cooking those children did not go hungry.  Its as generous a meal as I can remember and cheap to boot, too.  What goes on inside those pink walls and under that thatched ceiling is nothing short of wonderful.

9/10

The Karczma Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Original Patty Men, Digbeth

I’m all for competition. It breeds an environment where the best product and most savvy of businesses survive.  Its vital for the food industry in keeping profit margins at an acceptable level for the customer and for keeping the owners on their toes.  Rivalry breeds respect and results.  Though occasionally competition is futile.  Every now and then a leader emerges that is unbeatable, rendering everyone else to fight to for second or third place. Federer at tennis a decade ago, Google for search engines, America at obesity.  Now I’ve tried the burgers at the permanent home of Original Patty Men you can add them to that list.  Everyone else should turn off the gas on the grill, go home, and work on that pulled pork recipe.  Or whatever horrid trend is next in line to dominate 2016.

I’ve had the burgers before.  I’ve queued with the rest of them at Digbeth Dining Club and Seasonal Markets for my fill.  Street food is everywhere in Birmingham; we do it better than anywhere else, with OPM (as it will herewith be referred to) topping the bill alongside my other favourites Bournville Waffle Company and Baked in Brick .  Its just I like the queues as much as I trust the English weather.  Which is why I was a tad excited to park my fat arse on a chair in their new gaff under the arches in a Digbeth passage near Moor Street station car park.

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I could go on at length about the make-up of the burgers.  How the aged meat is coarsely ground and tightly packed.  How the high heat sears a crust full of umami and retains a blushing pink centre.  Its a thing of beauty that almost leaves me to be able to communicate only in profanities.  Oh, fuck it.  They are fucking amazing.  We try one in a glazed Krispy Kreme with maple glazed bacon where the potential over-sweetness is held at ground level by the savor of bovine hung for a good period of time.  Another sees the components of a cheese burger with a spiced mayo and crushed pork scratchings.  It sounds more outlandish than the reality; the pork rinds are there to provide an additional layer of seasoning and texture.  Its all very clever and extremely moreish.

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The small but perfectly formed menu has a few sides from which we try smokey home baked beans and chips topped with slaw and more of that spiced mayo.  The chips are good, taken up another level by the toppings which offer crunch and a little heat.  Better are the beans with bacon and a steal at two quid a pot.  They have no sweet courses on offer today, due to the local bakery that supplies them being too busy.  I consider requesting a Krispy Kreme for dessert.  Only grilled.  And with bacon and a lump of charred cow.

 

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We settle a bill which fails to reach thirty quid including a couple of drinks and look to the doors where a queue of waiting people are already starting to form.  That queue is only going to get bigger and bigger -Its inevitable with a product this good.  Forget Goodman’s, Byron, or the one at Burger and Lobster that costs £20.  Forget Dirty Burger or Meat Liquor or anywhere else that the capital has to offer.  OPM’s are the best burgers that I have ever eaten.  Digbeth, long home to the countries best street food, now has a resting place for one of the jewels in its crown.  I for one, could not be happier.

9/10