My family and work colleagues will tell you my pet hate is ‘poncy crisps’. Now, I love crisps and there is nothing better than premium hand-cooked crisps that are fresh, crunchy and moreish. So if you’ve managed to make such a high quality crisp, why ruin it then with ridiculous flavours such as cream cheese & chive or ham & cranberry?
This thought struck me as I recently ate at two great ‘pit BBQ’ specialists. Pit BBQ is very much a southern US tradition, great smoking BBQ restaurants that price themselves on serving the juiciest meats with incredible flavour, usually dripping in cheese and sauces!
Reds True Barbecue is a small chain with lofty ambitions and a retail range available in Asda. Mainly based in northern cities, it has a branch in Shoreditch not far from a relatively new indie Smokestak, who are doing similar things.
I’ve been seriously impressed with Reds, both as a destination for grown ups looking for amazing comfort food or families looking for something more adventurous than the normal chains. Reds Menu is full of well-known formats done really well, from ribs to burgers, steaks to sandwiches and everything inbetween. It’s a huge choice but all anchored in a sound basis of key smoked or marinated meats and cheeses, with a plethora of dips, sauces, sides and customisable options.
They have a couple of stand-out menu items I absolutely love. One is their Donut Burger, which is a burger that replaces the bun with two griddled sugar donuts (Yes, donuts. Two of them). The sweet and savoury mix works soooo well! Another is their Juicy Lucifer burger, just the right amount of fire and drippiness.
On the sides front, their Mac & Cheese Balls are wonderful, as are their Burnt Ends. And the fries come in a few versions, some with cheese and really I could eat them on a conveyor.
Desserts too are big, indulgent and make you need a like down afterwards. You can have donuts here too!
They’ve just refreshed their kid’s menu too and believe me, it’s a complete bargain with 2 and 3 course options for a few quid. They include smaller versions of the main menus but still with the same meats and cheeses. It will open your family’s eyes to how smoke, marinades and ferments can provide flavours and an eating experience like you’ve never tried before.
They do get busy though so book if you can and expect to be turfed out if you stay too long.
So that brings me onto Smokestak, and we revisit my crisps analogy. Smokestak is tucked away a little bit from Shoreditch High Street Overground station but you can smell it from two blocks away (in fact I believe they keep getting complaints from residents above!).
They have a very ‘hipster’ vibe to their restaurant with upcycled everything and a huge central kitchen where all the magic happens. Now, I’ve had a couple of dishes there that are incredible – the best smoked/BBQ menu items I’ve ever experienced. The Beef Brisket is just amazing and the Charred Greens side brings together flavours and ingredients I’ve not tried before but wish I had.
Then they get to their cream cheese & chive crisps. From the jaws of glory, they snatch defeat by trying too hard. Their nibbles/starter list includes Pig Tails. What should be an interesting alternative to ribs turns out to be a practically inedible dish too sticky and hard work to be anything like enjoyable.
There is no doubt they are good at what they do, but we need more burgers, the incredible brisket used in more dishes, and more meat-based dishes generally. Give us your smoke expertise in more recognisable formats and we’ll keep coming back.
Oh, and maybe train your staff better in terms of allergens…