I’ve mentioned my love of desi pubs on here before. Desi pubs are the saviour of working class neighbourhoods; taking the run down, beat up, unwanted pubs and giving them CPR via a Laurence Llewyn-Bowen makeshift makeover of a shit lick of paint and the blow of Henry’s hoover over the broken glasses. Desi pubs are the essence of the Great British boozer; a pseudo masculine environment of kegs and banter with added meat, where women may enter but they do so swigging pints and pretending to know what the offside rule is. You make think that I’m making sweeping generalisations – and, to be fair, I am – but go view it for yourself. Whilst pubs were the hideout for married men in an age of no mobile phones, desi pubs have become the place for them to congregate against a backdrop of Sky Sports and mixed grills. The food is like the clientele; it veers across the sub continent and back to Blighty, with lamb chops from Kashmir, Indo-Chinese from Kolkata, and sizzling bits of marinated chicken from Afghanistan or Glasgow, depending on which story you want to believe.
Birmingham’s desi pubs originated in the Black Country, spilling out towards areas like Handsworth and Nechells before spreading to the city centre and suburbs. I’ve been to most of them in the name of greed, but I’ve not been to the Covered Wagon since it changed hands. It’s a pub I used to go to when I wasn’t of legal age; down the road from my mate Al’s parents and the place we’d go before Snobs. We once won the jackpot at the quiz machine version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire there aided by the lady who taught me English the following morning in class. Now it’s beloved by those who claim to know the best in mixed grills. It’s one of the best in Birmingham, they say. It’s not, I say.
It’s not through lack of hospitality. A side of chicken tikka is huge to the point that the one blackened piece they hid under the salad could have been binned and we’d still find it too much. The rest is anglicised chunks of not great poultry in a marinade that lacks any distinctive notes like the two stool sitters on the wings of Westlife. We have the Dirk Diggler of lamb chops; over-hung and without personality, and a chilli paneer with cubes of cheese in a red gloop which tastes synthetic and crude. My dining companion insists on masala chips so we get masala chips.
Nothing is truly awful, but then the most memorable bits are the flaws; the incinerated piece of chicken and the ectoplasm on the chilli paneer, which is surely the opposite of what you want from paying for a meal. A few nights later I was drinking with an Indian friend when I mentioned this. “We love it because the portions are massive”, he tells me, thus reminding me of the gripe someone I know had when a local restaurant launched a new delivery concept over lockdown. This lad is respected for his opinion and was moaning about the size of a salmon starter he didn’t pay for. Some people just want a belly-full. Me, I’m looking for that magic touch.