London's Best Cheap Eats

Big Smoke, big price tags? Yeah, pretty much — most of the time, but not if you follow in the bargain-hunting footsteps of this cheap-eats guide. Here are 12 firm favorites that go little on cost and large on flavor. Come armed with 10 pounds and your culinary curiosity; you might even leave with a bit of shrapnel (change). Dig in, pilgrims.

Bao, Soho

Granted, these are not London’s best bao, nor the city’s cheapest (hello, Chinatown); however, a healthy few years after opening, Bao continues to draw the crowds that have flocked here since day dot, thanks to its bonkers tasty offerings and central-Soho locay. Its eponymous headline act, gua bao, is a pretty good use of £3.75: Pick from classic confit pork (described as "exquisimendous" by a trusted source), fried chicken, lamb shoulder, daikon and fried Horlick’s ice-cream (yezzir!). That’s not the only startling entry on the menu: The intriguing Taiwanese dishes to try include pig-blood cake, beef soup, peanut milk (say whaaat?) and trotter nuggets. The dining space is as small and simple as the headline act, so come early and be prepared to get in line.

Snaps + Rye, Notting Hill

London forgot to play it cool and went a bit weird over all things hygge a while back (it’s still crushing hard on everything Scandinavian), so great Dane Snaps + Rye was destined to be a winner. Its spic ’n’ span space on Notting Hill’s Golborne Road attracts a loyal crowd, thanks to pretty-as-a-picture concoctions featuring housemade treats, including just-baked rye bread, house-cured fish, house-infused Akvavit and the rest (these guys ain’t slackers). Founded by husband-and-wife team Kell and Jacqueline Skött, Snaps + Rye serves breakfast, brunch and lunch on Tuesday through Sunday; dinner from Thursday through Saturday. Try a house salad for 9 pounds, or go one pound over budget (rules are made to be broken) and try one of the "plates": flash-fried eel with warm potato salad, toasted rye, mustard and crisped ham, or the poetically named Sun Over Golborne: smoked trout with egg yolk, rye, pickled beetroot, capers and radish. Thanks to the on-site deli, you can take an edible piece of Denmark back home with you. Skal.

Tombo Poke, Soho

Tombo is Soho’s first poke-and-matcha bar. Sushi fans will be more turned on by the first half of the proposition: Poke is a classic Hawaiian dish of raw-fish salad, often served in a bowl over sushi rice and ornamented with myriad toppings and extras, including onions, chile peppers, roasted kukui (candlenut), limu (algae), wasabi, edamame and more. You can opt for a classic poke bowl or build your own. We went for Classic Poke with tuna, black and white rice, onion, edamame, sesame seeds and nori; our more inventive dining companion built a creation starring zucchini noodles, prawns, wasabi soy, spring onion and tempura crumbs. We both added goma wakame (green seaweed) and blush-pink pickled ginger, and found time to crunch on black tortillas with a silky edamame mousse. The wine and beer selection is small, but there are also sakes and tea from Tombo’s estate. Mad about matcha? Try a matcha doughnut, a matcha macaron, or a matcha shot, latte, milkshake or juice.

Also try: Baozi Inn and Jen Café, Chinatown; Herman Ze German, multiple locations

Chick ’n’ Sours, Dalston

Yeah, sure, for the real thing, just head to Chicken Cottage. However, if you like your dirty bird fancified and served with hectic sauces (hectically delicious), pay a trip to CnS. Fried chicken is a thing of beauty in its own right, but when you factor in said sauces — tangy orange sweet ’n’ sour numbers, further embellished with scallions and pineapple — and throw in zingy pickled watermelon salad, moreish Szechuan eggplant and a crunchy green slaw starring snow peas, apple and onion, you’re left with something celestial. Earning the latter portion of its moniker, Chick ’n’ Sours also serves up lick-your-chops-delicious sour cocktails, including one that stars blackcurrant and vinegar (trust us). There’s another outpost in Covent Garden, if you like this East London temple to fowl. For vibes, think hip-hop, striking lights, happily pineapple-y bathrooms and band posters we wish we had on our walls.

Also try: Beigel Bake, Brick Lane; Tayyabs, Whitechapel

Franco Manca, Brixton

London’s pizza scene got a much-needed reboot in 2008, when Franco Manca opened its first humble outpost amid the heaps of plantain and hair extensions in south London’s Brixton Market. Charcoal-flecked, plate-thin sourdough pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven from Naples — featuring flour from the owner’s Italian hometown — attracted snaking queues and prompted a mini explosion of Franco Ms across the capital. (It also galvanized Brixton Market into becoming the foodie lodestar we know and love today.) The menu hasn’t changed much, still demonstrating a pleasing economy in both length and price. There are six simple pizzas — including a cheese-less tomato number and a tomato-less cheese number — because when ingredients are this good, who needs subterfuge?

Also try: Filishack, Peckham; Silk Road, Camberwell

The Cheese Wheel, Kerb, Camden

Why serve pasta from a pan, when you can shove it piping hot into a giant warm cheese and slather it around a bit with some delicious added components? So reasoned the collective geniuses (cheesiuses?) behind the Wheel UK, an offshoot of the Mac Factory, who spotted a gap in Kerb’s market for fresh pasta — which is clearly best prepared in a giant rotating wheel of Grana Padano. The current carb fix on offer is handmade fettuccine Alfredo, which is artfully embellished with a Parmesan-and-white-wine sauce, then dropped into the belly of the 40-kilogram beast and whirled around with dizzy abandon to guarantee maximum flavor. Add shaved black truffle, smoked pork-and-leek sausage or fried wild mushroom to the mix.

Fish, Wings & Tings, Brixton

Some friendly advice: Take your tenner (£10, bruv) to Brixton Village Market. Ignore the siren calls of Franco Manca, Mamalan and co., and commit to seats at Fish, Wings & Tings. Sit outside if need be (heaters prevent perishing), or inside if you like the idea of surrendering to a warm and spicy goaty fog. For £6.50, you can purchase one of London’s tastiest snacks: FW&T’s codfish fritters, served with chile-flecked ginger and lime aioli. They’re as big as golf balls, they’re flecked with lemongrass and coriander, they’re hot and fluffy, and they’re a potato-y hug for the mouth, mind and soul. Invest your remaining £3.50 in a belly-warming homemade ginger beer, or break the budget by adding rum. The curries aren’t bad, either.

Bang Bang Oriental Food Hall, Colindale

Bang bang, you’re not dead; you’re at London’s new mega Asian food hall, a cavernous kingdom in Colindale — go any farther north and you’ll fall off the face of the earth — that takes inspiration from Asian street-food markets. There’s a dizzying array of bites and chomps to choose from — 33 kiosks in total — and space for up to 450 bottoms. China takes center stage, but Korea, Japan, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan are all repped pretty strongly too. Try toothsome roast duck in a seductively soy-y, lick-yer-lips sticky glaze from Four Seasons, pandan custard tarts from Wonder Bake, pan-fried Chinese dumplings (and congee porridge, perhaps?) from Xi Home and sushi from Umi (not necessarily in that order). Post-feast, get your nails done at one of the little beauty parlors on the mezzanine or realign your qi with a trip to the herbal medicine store. Dining out is an arduous task; unwind with a post-noodle massage.

Also try: Black Axe Mangal, Canonbury; Franks Canteen, Highbury

Mr Falafel, Shepherd's Bush

A humble hero tucked away in Shepherd’s Bush Market, Mr. Falafel is next to a veg-packed grocery stall and surrounded by hanging discount market garms. Mr Falafel’s motto is: "The Best Palestinian Falafel," but we reckon they added one word too many: They’re the best falafel, full stop. We went there hung-over and bleary-eyed, and made the mistake of automatically opting for the Classic Falafel on account of its name — only to see sexed-up alternatives lower down the menu. Wraps come packed with velvety rich hummus, succulent cubes of caramelized eggplant, rich, crunchy fresh salad and tomatoes and little firebomb hits of fresh chile. The shop is tiny and basic — but that adds to its charm, as do the staff. "Is Classic the best?" we weakly inquired; "You’re the best," they replied. Bonus points.

Also try: Faanoos, Chiswick; The Shed, Notting Hill

Voodoo Ray's, Shoreditch

Pizza: good. Pizza with frozen margaritas: better. We’ll be forever grateful to the genius that decided to pair the two at Voodoo Ray’s, which enjoys a temporary home in Boxpark, a pop-up shipping-container shopping center (about as East London as it gets) with a delectable selection of food and drink offerings. Voodoo Ray’s serves 22-inch, New York-style pizzas for a fair 4 pounds a slice; pick and mix different flavors. The Green and White stars ricotta, spinach, pine nuts, mozzarella and pecorino; King Tubby teams fennel-and-chile sausage with kale, caramelized onions, vine cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and tomato sauce. If you’ve been out raving in Shoreditch, order the available-only-after-midnight Full Moon Slice: bacon dust, marinated tomatoes, mozzarella and Japanese mayonnaise.

Marcel & Sons, Elephant & Castle

Chances are, you’ve never eaten Mauritian comfort food in a South London pop-up that’s as small as a shoebox (give or take a few inches) and as cozy as a cashmere cardi. Pre-Marcel, owners Randy and Andy both had healthy careers in advertising, which shows in their cute-as-a-button branding. The menu is succinct: bol renversé (sticky steamed rice with egg, chicken, shiitake mushroom, Mauritian sausage and sweet white wine); bao pao buns that trump Bao’s (try crispy beef, tofu or crispy sea bream); niouk nian dumplings starring amazing chayote dough. There’s no booze, but you can BYO from the bar next door, or sip a housemade rose-water alouda or lime and lemon juice. Save room for the intriguing coconut sorbet, which comes with a sugar-bomb slathering of salted pistachio and pineapple compote. (Don’t tell your dentist.) The pop-up hosts events and private parties, sells a selection of nifty arts and crafts by local designers and offers takeaway. We. Love. It.

Sông Quê Café, Shoreditch

Forget British pubs and Sunday roasts — we want to while away weekends in Shoreditch’s Song Que Café. Song Que was set up by the current owner’s father, a Vietnamese refugee who worked as a kitchen porter but dreamed of opening his own restaurant; eventually he did exactly that (praise be). The pleasingly low-key restaurant champions traditional Vietnamese dishes, with a few Chinese inclusions. Dishes are fresh as you like; don’t miss the beef pho, whose unctuous noodle soup is simmered with beef bones for eight hours and served with a DIY array of herbs, chiles, bean sprouts and more. Song Que is something of a local favorite; it has starred in more than one British cookery program and nabbed a few awards, so get here early to secure your seats. The hustle and bustle as the sizable dining room fills up — plus those mad green walls and random horse art — all add vibes. Prices are low, so you can over-order with giddy abandon.

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