The State of Independents

A recent flurry of articles in the Guardian/Observer food pages following this year’s Michelin Guide highlighted the dichotomy in Brum’s food scene. The inimitable Jay Rayner’s argument is that even after Carters bagging a fifth Michelin star for the city there’s still little choice for good food at a reasonable price in Birmingham. It’s unfortunate that the example he cites as being the exception, The Queens at Belbroughton, is actually in Worcestershire! It’s a lovely pub with a reputation for really good traditional food. The Sunday roast lunch is well worth the trip out to Clent. It joins great restaurants like Polpo, A Wong and Honey & Co in this year’s list of new Michelin Bib Gourmands. Birmingham has no restaurants in this lower Michelin tier that recognises “exceptional good food at moderate prices”. For me it’s clear that, with or without Michelin guidance, the middle ground in the Birmingham food scene is still a wasteland.

So cue a minor backlash, commenters quick to mention Balti, curry, Mr Egg and all those Birmingham food clichés that actually reinforces Mr Rayner’s argument. Local food critic and egghead Richard McComb writes a response piece in the same publication but fails to mention a single restaurant in the middle ground. It’s dominated by chains, big and small, that prioritise corporate ideals over anything that puts good food first. I’m going to assume that we all agree on this because if you’ve read this far you must believe that good food comes from good cooks that care and not from a boardroom. The issue for me are those Birmingham apologists that everytime Brum food is knocked they play the Independent card. I know how hard it is to open and run an independent business in this town, I’m not knocking any indie businesses on those grounds. BUT! There is currently a dogma in the Brum food scene that preaches and publicises a select image of Independents completely ignoring the rich diversity here and on top of that confounds the idea that Independent automatically equals good food.

Let’s take that first point. I genuinely feel it’s a whitewash in a somewhat literal sense, these thinly veiled PR excuses for food and lifestyle blogs in the main ignore anything that can be found in our ethnic neighbourhoods. If you were to believe your average Birmingham food blogger then we only exist in a patchy spiral that starts in the centre, meanders through JQ, Edgbaston, Harborne, Moseley and Kings Heath. A myopic vision of Birmingham which as a native I find unrecognisable and reprehensible. Stop it, just stop writing those blogs and puff pieces in your cosy Harborne cafes and get out into Handsworth, Lozells and Sparkbrook before you claim to have found the latest hidden gem.

The second point needs stressing. Setting up an independent food business takes a lot of hard work and courage but absolutely does not guarantee good food. Go find the great independents in our city but don’t be forcefed by anyone, least of all me. I can’t tell you what to like, if you know me then you know I wouldn’t listen to me either. Use your own judgment just don’t believe in the image that’s been glossed all over town. The middle ground isn’t another mediocre gastropub/burger/bbq/wing place. The middle ground should be The Queens, Two Cats Kitchen, Fiesta Del Asado, Tipu Sultan, Pushkar, Butcher’s Social, Andersons, Manchester Seafood. A combination of interesting food and/or surroundings which doesn’t break the bank. If you’re regularly spending £30 on starter/burger/fries/dessert in the same old places then you’re the reason Birmingham doesn’t have better restaurants in the middle.

You can’t compare us to London, that would be like comparing us to New York or Berlin. But you need to look at these places to see what’s possible. Seasonal modern British, progressive East and SE Asian (Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Malaysian/Fusion), regional Italian, real southern Bbq, Mexican, no holds barred Thai, the list goes on and on as to what Brum is missing in the middle. Let’s compare us to somewhere more reasonable, Bristol. I would swap every other curry house we have for a Birch or Bell’s Diner or Paco or Ethicurean. Not another chain outlet in a shopping centre. Not another tick box exercise for one of our local chains disguised as Independent.

Good food is like good music, it’s made by people who care, it affects you and moves your soul. You don’t want to end up watching Mumford & Sons on the pyramid stage at Glastonbury when you suddenly realise that they suck balls. Don’t believe any hype about music, the same goes for food.

Caribbean Round-Up

Wah gwan bredren? For a long time now South Asian cuisine has been our most beloved ethnic food here in Brum. But on every street in every inner-city neighbourhood of our fair metropolis, Caribbean cafes and takeaways have been serving up proper soul food for decades. Who doesn’t like curry goat, jerk chicken, fried chicken, ackee saltfish, dumplings, rice and peas? Preferably all at the same time. The menu is pretty standard in all of them making a comparison easier to do. When is goat mutton? Who’s jerk is proper smokey? Fried chicken that is actually crispy not microwaved to soggy?

Unless you “keep it locked” on Newstyle or then you probably won’t have heard of many of these places but if you ever drive by you should check them out. None of these places are pretty. Don’t be expect Turtle Bay decor, faux Island Time flourishes and synthetic palm trees. You might get a few posters telling you when the next bashment night is at The Drum. You won’t get a discount with your loyalty card but these Brum independents will make you happy for not much money anyway.

I’ll keep adding to the list as I find them. If you have any favourite please let me know. My buddy Jack Spicer Adams and I are always hungry to check them out!

56 Lozells Rd, Birmingham, B19 2TJ
Tel: 0121 551 0904

The daddy on Lozells Rd, a large cafe space in a slightly intimidating part of town. I only ever have the curry goat here, it sets the standard, lip-smackingly nice and nice. People swear by the house patties here but they are not a patch on Fenkys or Tasty Pastry.

Blue Marlin
26 Coventry Rd, Birmingham, B10 0RX
Tel: 0121 772 4667

Under the railway bridge on the way out of town past Digbeth, it’s easy to miss Blue Marlin. The faded sign doesn’t help. Standing room only, with a narrow counter along one side if you really have to eat in. The jerk chicken here is splendid with a proper smokey flavour and good amount of sweet brown sauce. The curry mutton here is a solid rendition, sometimes a little tough but rich with marrow.

Mish Mash
406 Dudley Road, Birmingham B18 4HH
Tel: 0121 448 1242

A promising sight of a jerk pan at the front of the shop. The jerk here is quite decent, if it was fresh then it would be great. The fried chicken doesn’t really cut the mustard, soggy and dry. The gloopy mutton curry has a nice flavour but didn’t rock my boat. The sides were good though, excellent hard food but then you don’t come just to eat hard food.

Portland Lagoon
3 Great Hampton Street, Birmingham B18 6AQ
Tel: 0121 236 8119

Anyone who’s ever sat on The Church’s roof terrace will not have failed to notice the smokey jerk aromas wafting up their nostrils from this takeaway next door. It does have a couple of small tables so you can devour things on-site because good jerk chicken waits for no-one. The jerk here is probably the best you’re going to find in a shop but don’t overlook the rest, it’s all really good too.

Chris’s Restaurant
72a Cape Hill, Smethwick, West Midlands, B66 4PB
Tel: 0121 558 0435

A door, just a door on Cape Hill high street in Smethwick. That’s all Chris’s appears to be. Oh that and a big sign alludes to something tasty. Follow the winding corridor back ever back to the extension of the extension to find a good space for hunkering down. The curry mutton here is excellent, the best I’ve eaten in Brum. The jerk juicy but lacking a nice char flavour. The fried chicken as always is the big let down, nice flavour but that coating is not crisp.

Tasty Kitchen
About to write about the tasty jerk chicken in this place in Nechells but it got closed down by the police. Some allegations of unsavouriness or another, best not to go any further. A shame because the chicken was definitely savoury.

Sharians, Esmies, The Jerk Man and other Streetfood Caribbean

Your best bet for jerk chicken is in a streetfood or festival scenario where you can see the jerk pan and the chicken slowly smoke grilling away on it. To be honest it’s difficult to mess up fresh jerk chicken, chargrilled chicken in any flavour is the universal language of good food. The problem with shops is that they have to hold them for an interminable time. Good if it’s fresh off the grill but when’s that? Sometimes, the jerk pan only comes out once a week so they cook all their chicken for the week. What you’re getting on a non jerk pan day is some reheated chicken from X days ago. Sharians is a regular on Brum market days, I always seek them out at Harborne Farmers Market and at KingshEATh Streetfood market. They is propa! Lovely one-two of jerk and curry always makes me happy. Esmies is a favourite of the Digbeth streetfood scene. Their freshly fried dumpling filled with mutton curry maybe the best streetfood item in Brum. There I said it!


I’ve written about Fenky Janes patties already and if you ever see them in a shop you should without hesitation buy them. But, and it’s a big but, in a cafe without a pattie warmer you should never buy them. There’s no sadder sight than a microwaved pattie. Tasty Pastry patties made in Handsworth are a close contender to Fenky Janes. Some even say the pastry is better, but Fenky’s fillings are superior especially the saltfish and ackee. If you like the Island Delight patties you can get in supermarkets you need to give yourself a slap and wake up. They’re disgusting.

Don’t forget the Simmer Down festival is going on in Handsworth Park this Sunday 19th July. It’s a paradise for Caribbean food, I had the very best curry goat of my life there last year from Right Stuff Cater Inn, I hope they’re back.



Hot pot
Hot pot

It’s taken time for me to warm to Topokki’s humble charms. The basic home-style Korean food was alright, it didn’t really hit the spots for me. But it sneaks onto the Brumfoodmap on the strength of one dish, the Dolsot Bibimbap. A red hot stone bowl filled with rice, finely sliced fresh vegetables and a choice of meat, beef all the way for me. Mix in the Korean magic ingredient gojujang (a smooth sweet, fermented, fiery chilli paste) and bingo! Instant satisfaction. Well not instant as it’s scorching hot but that’s the beauty of it, the heat cooks off the gojujang and aromatises the rice as you eat it. Better still there’a nice crust of browned rice at the end of the bowl. A truly delicious way to eat rice.

The fried chicken nuggets are tasty here if a little unsubstantial but the rest of the menu is a little boring. The kimchi is watery and bland. The room has been extended so it’s a lot more comfortable. Maybe a little too comfortable, everytime I’ve eaten there it’s been full of groups of Chinese yoofs passive aggressively treating the place like a lounge. Getting in the way of the patiently polite Korean staff after they’ve finished picking at their food ages ago. They’re obviously the restaurant’s main clientele and I’m not usually bothered by what other diners are up to, but there’s a line of rudeness that people skate very close to here. I just eat my bibimbap and go!

Unit 1C Hurst Street, Birmingham, West Midlands B5 4TD
Tel:0121 666 7200

Le Truc

Now I know we have steak restaurants in Brum; Andersons, MPW, the marvellous Fiesta Del Asado and the mediocre meatfest Rodizio Rico. But my favourite steak to eat in Brum is the onglet in Le Truc. This classic French bistro cut is the muscle that attaches the diaphragm and separates the lungs from the other organs. It’s got a deep beefy offally flavour and has to be cooked rare or it’s as tough as jerky. I always look forward to ordering it, fries and bernaise on the side, a simple thing done incredibly well.

Let’s not overlook Le Truc’s other charms. Open a couple of years now, it used to be the popular Chez Jules off New St. The spacious room is quintessially French bistro with quirky touches and a whole wall enshrined to Serge Gainsbourg. The menu is French bistro but done without any of the corporate Cafe Rouge cynicism. It’s not all French! They do a terrific Sunday roast beef too but really if you’re in the mood for no nonsense Frenchiness then Le Truc does the trick.

Le Truc
21 Ladywell Way, Birmingham B5 4ST
Tel: 0121 622 7050

Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle II

An update of the previously seminal (not so now) BCRMB on my Foodist Blog. A new point on the Brumfoodmap, Malaysian delight, who aside from tasty roast meats do some decent Malaysian food too.

Here are the results:

New Sum Ye 新意美食

Duck 3.5 (out of 5) Pork 4 Char siu 3 Other 4.5
Total 15 (out of 20)
£10.20 (£8.20, £1 duck leg supplement, £1 tea) ouch!

China Town Noodle Bar 中華美食

Duck 3 Pork 2 Char siu 3 Other 2
Total 10
£9 (£7.50, 50p dls, £1 tea)

Ken Ho 双喜

Duck 4.5 Pork 4.5 Char siu 4 Other 3.5
Total 16.5
£10.30 (£9.50, 80p tea)

Ken ho - glistening
Ken Ho – glistening

Peach Garden 桃園

Duck 4 Pork 4 Char siu 4.5 Other 4
Total 16.5
£8.10 (£7.20, 90p dls)

Meat sweats
Peach Garden – hot under the collar


Malaysian Delight 馬來風味
8 Ladywell Walk, Birmingham, West Midlands B5 4ST
Tel: 0121 622 3909

The name of the restaurant might lead you to think it’s not a Cantonese roast meat place at all. But with Chinese chefs this cafe has always served up some decent roasts alongside Malaysian classics like Assam laksa and nasi lemak. If further proof is required then the hanging roast meat display is the most prominent in the whole of Chinatown, facing the main road for all to see. Not usually as much meat on display as Peach Garden or New Sum Ye so you need to get there early for the best cuts. The plate I had was fine indeed. The roast duck is flavourful and juicy with the meat slipping off the bone easily. I’d have liked more as only a drumstick was presented. The roast belly pork was a little tough and the crackling although thin could have been crispier, good flavour meat and well seasoned. Char siu was a great cut of meat, a good ratio of collar collagen for a nice bouncy texture. The flavour was a little sweet for my liking but there was a good char flavour too. Rice was slightly too cold and firm served with a measly amount of pak choi. Typically for a Malaysian cafe the chilli oil had plenty of shrimp flavour and had good heat. Overall portion size was a little on the small side.

Duck 4.5 Pork 3.5 Char siu 4 Other 3
Total 15
£9 (£7.50, £1 dls, 50p tea)

Delightful duck
Delightful duck


Joint winners! Peach Garden and Ken Ho have the best roast meats in Chinatown. As a single plate of food Ken Ho probably edges it but pricewise Peach Garden is unbeatable. For £7.20 you have a triple roast and a cup of tea and know that you absolutely cannot eat a better meal for the money in Brum.

Tipu Sultan

Sultani mutton chops, naughty
Sultani mutton chops, naughty

Beer and curry. Curry and beer. The two go hand-in-hand don’t they? Well it maybe so but this old fashioned drinking culture has set back the quality of Indian cuisine on our high streets. Tipu Sultan bucks that tradition and is totally dry of alcohol. Ironically it’s in the old Jug of Ale pub in Moseley. Something magical has happened to that run down pub, famous for being the city’s best Indie gig venue back in the day (Nirvana played there), it’s now the most lavishly appointed restaurant this side of Dubai. Fit for sultans and just on the right side of bling.

Without the help of alcohol we can focus clearly on the food offering and here it’s proudly Pakistani. Very similar to that other favourite of ours Mughal E Azam. Rich sticky meat curries that have the qualities of being slow cooked properly, not thrown together Balti style. The lamb Achari is a favourite, spicy and hot, with freshness provided by finely shredded ginger. Grilled meats are slathered in spice pastes that do not overwhelm the quality of the meat or the cooking. Their signature sultani mutton chops leave your fingers stained and your taste buds singing. It’s clear to me that if you can break the beer curry habit then you will really love Tipu Sultan. They have expansion plans so it’s definitely a habit worth breaking.

Tipu Sultan
43 Alcester Road, Birmingham B13 8AA
Tel: 0121 449 8539

Manchester Seafood

When Chinese people eat seafood we don’t mess around. There’s no pan-fried fillet of John Dory with seaweed butter foam perched on a bed of samphire. Forget. That. Give me two lobsters from that tank over there, chop them up whilst they’re still twitching, flash fry them in a screaming hot wok with a mountain of crispy garlic. Whilst you’re at it, steam us a whole turbot, braise an eel, poach prawns, prepare half a dozen crabs and let’s have it all in 15 minutes. Ok? No problem.

The inauspiciously named Manchester Seafood Retail and Restaurant is just that, a seafood shop with a restaurant at the back. I say inauspicious only in the sense that us Brummies are a little

wary of our bolshy Northern counterparts. What have they got that we don’t, apart from two world-class football teams and our national broadcaster? They’re about as land-locked as us so to come down here with your live seafood tanks and Chinese seafood chefs who know what they’re doing, well that’s just marvellous! And whisper it, it is marvellous. For the first time in this country I felt a little like I was in one of the seafood towns of Hong Kong. The seafood is tinged mostly Cantonese with splashes of colour from Sichuan in their meat dishes, but they’re less successful. Stick to the fish the clue is in the title.

It’s best to come mob handed to Chinese restaurants like this. These are big dishes that are meant to be shared family style eaten with rice. Many times I’ve read reviews by old hacks that read like this: “I ordered the salt and pepper squid as a starter for myself and the steamed sea bass for main.” Don’t do this please. Go with like minded food lovers, order 1.5 to 2 dishes per diner, depending on how greedy. Order rice and get stuck in together. Eat Chinese if you want appreciate real Chinese food.

Manchester Seafood
Wrottesley St, Birmingham B5 4RT

18th Feb 2015 An update! We ordered this eel dish last night and we’re blown away by it. The best dish of the year so far. A fresh eel cut and skinned in such a way that it curled into the bowl like a chrysanthemum flower. Each piece still attached to the last by a merest strip of  succulent flesh. This amazing piece of cooking skill also proves that a whole eel is served to you and the kitchen isn’t cheating. It’s been known that unscrupulous chefs will take a chunk out of the middle! The taste and texture of the dish is the best I’ve had anywhere, so clean and fresh. The eels in Asia can be very muddy tasting, there was none of that here. Cantonese cooking at it’s very best.

Best Bacon Sandwiches at Nimmings Cafe, Clent Hills

Clent Hills - Photo by Hannah Eno
Clent Hills – Photo by Hannah Eno
What are the ingredients of a bloody good walk? Well a nice view is always good. And a sturdy hill to climb to give a sense of achievement at the end, that’s always good too. But mainly I find a food or drink incentive is the best way of getting me out of the house.
But where to go, when starting from Birmingham? Hills and views usually requires a car journey.  Tolkien fans may wish to head towards Tolkien’s inspiration for the Shire – the Lickey Hills, or even further to the Malvern Hills.
But I fancy that notorious bacon fancier Tolkien (there are seven references to bacon in The Hobbit) would, if he was still in walking mode, prefer to go to my top tip for a country ramble: the Clent Hills.
The walk is decent enough, a nice big hill, a trig point, a folly in the distance, the malevolant-looking Black Mountains out to the West. But the real reason to go is what must be without a doubt The Best Bacon Sandwich (nearly) in Birmingham.
If I was writing in the Guardian we could do 300 words on what makes the best bacon sandwich. But given food enjoyment is 90% context, you are halfway there already on a cold, bright winter Sunday morning, surrounded by dogs and dog walkers and half-famished from the effort of dragging yourself out of bed (sandwich should preceed walk I find). But the other 10% is well supplied with a bouncy thickly-sliced bloomer loaf, slices dunked in bacon grease and generously stuffed with well-griddled, crisp edged bacon, cut thick enough from the belly to be substantial. Red sauce optional but a must. Adding an egg often not a bad idea – you know, just for sustenance. Don’t forget there’s a walk after this. This is not the place for multigrain sourdough and rare breed oinkers, and all the better for it.
Be warned, this place is hella popular so you might be in for a 30 minute wait at peak times. But you can get a steaming mug of tea (always tea, never a coffee, especially here) while you wait and watch the dog owners with small-pony-sized hounds struggling to stop them shagging (or eating) the littler ones.
If you can still be bothered to walk up the hill once you’ve had your sandwich, there’s a very decent pub on the other side for a lunchtime pint.
Open every day except Mondays and Xmas Day. If you have National Trust membership you can park for free in the car park.

Arabic Chicken and Rose Bakery

Fresh roast chicken and fresh bread for just £3.80, beats a sandwich and packet of crisps at Tesco

There’s a cheerful Yemeni chap on the Stratford Rd in Sparkbrook that sells “Arabic Chicken” from a rotisserie on the street. His rotisserie is fuelled by a worn looking gas tube snaking from the letterbox of Al Saada Middle Eastern store. If the prospect of stopping in Sparkbrook as you drive to your homes in leafier suburbs is unappetising, then you’re not going to like hearing that it’s really delicious. Oh and it’s £3.50 for a small whole freshly roasted chicken. It’s generously slathered in his secret recipe spice paste, heavy in garlic and cinnamon. He only cooks in the afternoon, so the chicken is always freshly roasted and moist. Now if only I could persuade him to stick a tray of potatoes at the bottom to catch all that aromatic chicken fat. Like they do in French markets.

Lucky then that the Rose Bakery is next door. For 30p you can get a fluffy Middle Eastern style flatbread to soak up all that chicken goodness. Less than £4 for real bread and meat made by real cooks. Worth getting out your car for I think, you’ll be stuck in traffic anyway.

Al Saada
168 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 1AG

Rose Bakery
170 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 1AG

Samosa City

Sweet Mahal's meat samosa, greatness
Sweet Mahal’s meat samosa, greatness

A great samosa is never too far away in our fair city. You don’t ever have to eat an onion filled meat samosa at your local Farmers Market ever again. A full guide to Black Country and Sparkhill samosa shops can be found on my Foodist blog.

Truly delicious meat samosas can be found at Sweet Mahal and Mushtaq’s on the Stratford Rd. Suraj gives a different spin on veggies samosas. Uppals sneaks in with great paneer rolls. The Punjabi Sweet Centre is a nice place to eat in, samosas could be better though.

Sweet Mahal
826 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 4BS
Tel: 0121 777 6777

451-455 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 4LD
Tel: 0121 772 0631

Suraj Sweet Centre
703 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 4DN
Tel: 0121 778 5100

33 Barcroft Road, Wolverhampton WV2 3HF
Tel: 01902 451113

Punjabi Sweet & Curry House (aka Punjabi Sweet Centre)
285/287 High Street, Smethwick B66 3NJ
Tel: 0121 565 2187