The Bartons Arms

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It’s quite a modern day phenomenon, Thai food served in very traditional pubs. There are quite a few dotted around down that there London. But the only one in Brum is at The Bartons Arms, a truly gorgeous restored Victorian boozer in a pretty rough corner of town. Sitting in the dining room it’s hard not to think that it may be the most beautiful in the city, not as grand or opulent as Mughal e Azam but definitely having more soul, possessing a timeless quality that’s been scrubbed clean and looks fresh again.

To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from the food. I find most Thai food served in the city to be pretty generic, like the offerings in our Balti houses, choose your gravy then choose the protein to go into it. Which is a shame because great Thai cuisine is so vibrant, pushing the hot-sour-salty-sweet envelope with complex flavours. Like a massaman curry which served here comes close to greatness, better than the roast duck curry with pineapple that should be more sour. Most Thai food in this country is generally too sweet and the food here doesn’t escape that syndrome. The juicy well cooked tamarind duck should be both sweet and sour but childishly errs to candy. The hot and salty can be fixed with a little dish of prik nam pla (Thai chillies in fish sauce) at the table but sometimes the sour need to be cooked-in. A gripe, which I happily acknowledge is down to personal preference, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the dishes here. The starters are mixed, nice honey ribs but bland chicken wings and satay. Fishcakes could do with a little more kick but are of a pleasingly irregular handmade shape. Never trust a perfectly round fish cake, they’ve probably been dropped into the fryer from frozen straight out of the packet. There is the sense of fresh ingredients here, from the Thai basil in the curry to the shredded carrot and cabbage garnish, it’s all been cooked with care.

The Bartons Arms
144 High Street, Aston, Birmingham, B6 4UP
Tel: 0121 3335988

Lewis’s of Moseley

There patently aren’t enough delis in Birmingham, which I believe is an indicator of the level of homecooking going on. Though supermarkets provide the essentials, you really aren’t going to find five types of dried Mexican chillies in them. For that you need places like Lewis’s sitting in its prime location between the Fighting Cocks and Bulls Head in Moseley Village. Along with the venerable (and musty) Nima it’s one of two whole delis in this suburb.

I wasn’t joking about the dried chillies, Lewis stocks a nice selection of Cool Chile Co’s Mexican stuff from corn husks and masa harina to tomatillos. He’s also got a spiffing line in Mediterranean goods which are the lifeblood of delis like his. Where else would your yummy mummies (and me) go to find Spanish Tapas essentials like Santo Domingo Pimenton De La Vera, Valdespino sherry vinegar, Brindisa chorizo or Perello Gordal olives? Interesting pasta shapes like bucatini and panettone at xmas? Or even Vietnamese summer roll kits.

There’s a limited but good selection of charcuterie and cheeses, some fresh seasonal veg including gorgeous heritage tomatoes. Fresh artisanal bread daily from Lucky 13 Bakehouse and cakes from the Bake Birmingham gents. Service is superbly friendly and best of all there’s seating so you can try everything whilst sipping an excellent Monmouth Coffee Company coffee. Just what every suburb in Birmingham needs, not another flipping Tesco Express. Gets busy on Moseley famers market day (4th Saturday of the month).

Lewis’s of Moseley
11 St Mary’s Row, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8HW
Tel: 0121 4499933

Loaf Community Bakery, Stirchley

Tom and Dom from Loaf have been rightly annoyed with me for not having put the fabulous Loaf Community Bakery on the Birmingham Food Map yet. A source of great shame; when we conceived the map project my plan was to post one item per day until we were exhausted of all options. However, it was not to be, due to burn-out from non-blog projects.

Yet, I don’t feel that bad, as I figure if you already read this blog, and are therefore an afficionado of the Birmingham food scene, you must know of Loaf already, which serves as a kind of beacon for those interested in food in the City. But anyway, sorry to Tom and Dom and pleased I can correct this wrong now!

So what to say about Loaf Community Bakery – originally a ‘bread club’, a subscription-based bakery run from Tom’s house and domestic oven, he has since harnessed the support of his community to set up a fully-fledged bakery and cookery school in a shop front on Stirchley High Street. Tom has strong ideas about the power of projects such as his, not just to supply great food, but to help communities ‘save’ their local high streets from shuttering and the inexorable creep of the major supermarkets.

The way I look at it: these guys bake what is easily the best bread in Birmingham, bar absolutely no-one. Properly made, hand-shaped crusty sourdough, part-rye loaves like the ‘Maslin’ and dark, treacly all-rye tin varieties. Great big bloomin’ bloomers, multi-grain loaves and specialty breads like focaccias and brioche. You might also find a sticky bun or two if they haven’t sold out.

It’s not just bread, there is a (most) weekly Friday lunch club called Stirchley Brewhouse, with a rotating menu of sandwiches and hot food, usually one meat and one vegetarian option, with Sarah Frost’s amazing cakes to have afters.

There are occasional pop-ups, including the highly-rated CANeat event which a no-choice set menu of progressive and innovative food (5* review from Paul Fulford).

There is also the cookery school which hosts a variety of interesting events. I have been on the Simply sourdough course which I can highly recommend, there are other bread-making courses, foraging, clay oven building, fish and seafood (run by blog co-writer Lap), pickling and preserves, and many more!

The opening hours are informed by the baking schedule, so it is open 2pm-7pm Tuesday-Friday and then they do an overnight bake on Friday so open 8.15am-2pm on Saturday. But not Sunday or Monday.

Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School, 1421 Pershore Road, Stirchley, Birmingham

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Banana Leaf Cafe, Selly Oak

You’d have to try pretty hard to find a worse location for a restaurant than the back of the Costcutter grocery store in Selly Oak. However, on the occasionally true equation that restaurant shabbiness sometimes equals superlative food, I was excited to try the Banana Leaf Cafe. This had previously been recommended to me by a colleague as a Malaysian street food style cafe, run by Birmingham University students. We went in August, only to find that they were closed for the summer holiday. We returned a few weeks ago only to find that rather than a Malaysian restaurant, it was now a Sri Lankan restaurant run by a hugely friendly family. Served buffet-style, they had a phenomenally hot mutton curry, rice, fish-filled patties, a selection of dals and vegetable curries and several sambals. So excited was I by my huge plate of deliciousness I failed to take any specific notes on what exactly I was eating. However all the food was of home-cooked quality, and staggeringly good. Keen that we were enjoying ourselves they brought over a pancake which was cooked like a dosa, but wasn’t lentil-based. And to finish off, some chocolate cake. Strange, very lovely, extremely cheap. I am posting this in haste because I suspect you need to get down here and keep these guys open, so completely unlikely is their location. Open 7 days a week, I think just for lunch. I will confirm after our next visit

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Banana Leaf Cafe, back of Costcutter supermarket (up from and on same side of Seoul Plaza, down from Aldi), Bristol Road, Birmingham

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Seoul Plaza, Selly Oak

What’s not to love about plucky little Seoul Plaza? For budding David Changs this Korean supermarket is the place to get your gochugaru (red pepper powder) and brine shrimp for making home-made kimchi, and your gochujang and ssamjang for bo ssam. There are also aisles for Chinese and Japanese ingredients, including a reasonable selection of fresh Chinese vegetables. You can pick up a decent Pi-Xian chilli bean paste here for fish-fragrant aubergines or mapo tofu. Those back from Japan with a hankering for Pocari Sweat will find it in the fridge, along with those weird drinks that look like they have frogspawn in (nope, never tried). If you can’t be bothered to make your own kimchi, you can also choose from their freshly-made options.

In the past few weeks, perhaps most excitingly for those desperate to find food in Selly Oak, they have started a hot food counter, serving takeaway rice, noodles, Korean fried chicken, fried dumplings, vegetable and pork dishes. The Korean fried chicken has a decent crust and decent sauce. A great deal for under a fiver. This is rapidly becoming our canteen for trips out from University campus.

They even have a small section for crockery and homewares, I got some nice Korean clay rice bowls here, perfect for serving kimchi jiggae. You can even pick up a rice cooker while you are there, or even an authentic Korean dedicated kimchi fridge, a snip at £700.

Seoul Plaza, 536 Bristol Road (down from and opposite Aldi), Birmingham.

Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!
Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!

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Red n’ Hot

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What’s in a name? In particular Red n’ Hot, what kind of establishment does it sound like? As you’re reading a food blog you’ll guess it’s some kind of restaurant but in other circumstances you might say it’s a soft-core porn collection from the days of VHS. Something a bit niche. In some ways it might as well be for all the mainstream attention it gets but it must be doing something right sitting in it’s prime Hurst St location next to the the Hippodrome. It’s actually a chain of Sichuan restaurants, the other branches in London and Manchester. With the recent demise of BBQ village it’s become my go to for that spicy branch of Chinese cuisine. It’s pure Sichuan too, no pandering to Cantonese, Shanghainese or Beijing tastes.

Neither seemingly does it pander to Western tastes, the dark frontage looks brooding and the dark beaded blinds prevents passersby from peeking in. If you do get through the door the first thing you see is a little office space, cus that’s what it is, a Chinese travel agency. Look beyond this bit and you get the restaurant, all bare black surfaces. The tables have hotpot functionality but I’ve never had that there, always going for the plated dishes from the phonebook sized menu with its 100+ items. The old menu was a little more concise with photos of every dish listed but this one only illustrates the highlights. The dishes are listed in English but the components are in Chinese, so cryptic names like Husband and Wife Slices can be a little hard to decipher (cold sliced beef tripe and pork tongue). But be brave, order a lot and ask for it spicy because these are flavours you should fully commit to.

Rumour has it that the chef from BBQ Village relocated here and there is evidence in the Dry Fried Chicken with Chillies 辣子雞丁. The outrageous amount of chillies used in the dish is a hallmark. But then the Sliced Pork in Chilli 水煮肉片 is a little underpowered, it should be face-melting but wasn’t. It’s still delicious but when the waitress issues a warning when you order and it doesn’t deliver on maximum numbing 麻 and hot 辣 then you have to be a little disappointed. Nonetheless the flavours of the Sizzling Cumin Lamb 孜然羊肉 and Gong Bao King Prawn 宫保虾球 are excellent and worth going for on their own. Indeed I think dishes taste a lot cleaner than they did at BBQ Village so maybe the chef has cleaned up his act, literally, as the restaurant displays it’s 5/5 hygiene rating proudly. Some say it takes away something from the food, but in these more enlightened times maybe a little less MSG and sizzling oil is actually a good thing.

Red n’ Hot
Tel: 0121 6666076
35 Hurst Street, Birmingham B5 4BJ

A K Superstore

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I love Asian grocers, I particularly love the cheapness. It makes me chuckle every time I see a tiny 25g sachet of coriander leaf in Waitrose for 89p. A two minute drive down the road and for the same price I can get two whole bunches of the stuff. More coriander than I know what to do with (might be an exaggeration). Garlic, ginger, chillies, spices, fresh fruit and veg. I can stuff a carrier bag full and never have to break a bank note. Anyone serious about cooking living in a big city knows their nearest Asian grocer. Springfield (Sparkhill) Parade on Stratford Rd is close to where I live, on it there are 5 big grocers all vying for business. It’s a perfect competition scenario as studied in Economics class. Stock is turned over quickly and always fresh.

But A K Superstore is not there. It’s on the Coventry Rd in Small Heath. The bit you never go down because that’s why the Small Heath Bypass was built. That stretch of the Cov road is teeming with Asian and Middle-eastern businesses. AK Superstore is opposite the park and has the freshest fruit and veg of all the Asian grocers I’ve ever been in. Whenever I go there is always someone checking over the produce and discarding any that aren’t pristine. Worth a detour if you’re in the area especially during mango season.

A K Superstore
640-642 Coventry Rd, Birmingham B10 0UT

BBQ Village 串串香

What do you think of when you think of Chinese food? Sweet and sour chicken, beef in oyster sauce, fried rice, sesame prawn toast or maybe dim sum? You won’t find any of that in BBQ Village, or actually you will if they give you the English menu. But why would you go to this Sichuan-Beijing hybrid Chinese restaurant and order the usual westernised derivative Cantonese dishes. I’ve been a little reticent to put this on the Brumfoodmap because of the recent bad news about it’s hygiene rating. But in a way it makes the restaurant authentic because by the standards of food safety in China, if it doesn’t kill you then it’s considered safe over there… and I haven’t died yet. So in the interests of finding the tastiest food in Brum, BBQ Village is up there with the best.

If you’re not familiar with this kind of Chinese food then you may be surprised by the flavour of some of the dishes. The name of the restaurant in Chinese 串串香 means tasty or fragrant skewers (see how the simplified character for skewer 串 looks like skewer of meat, it’s a simple language really!) Order these to whet your appetite and prepare your tastebuds for the full on assault of spicy flavours about to follow. Skewered morsels of lamb, beef and chicken are encrusted with chilli and cumin, for the more adventurous try the chicken hearts and gizzards or the tripe skewers. Don’t miss out on the bread skewers either, toast but not the usual prawn toast. Move on to a cold starter of mouth-watering Chicken 口水雞, the unmistakable tingle of Sichuan pepper dances on your tongue balancing the moreish hot, sweet and vinegary dressing. If you like that then try the fearsome Beef in Chilli Oil 水煮牛肉, my favourite dish, a cauldron of sliced beef that you should pick out of the chilli oil-slick. Do not spoon the oil over your rice! Dry fried chicken with chillies 辣子雞丁 ups the ante on the Sichuan Pepper vs Chilli stakes. By now the Sichuan pepper should have sufficiently numbed your tongue so that you are immune to the chilli heat, perfect then to appreciate the wonderful textures of the classic Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐. The silken cubes of bean-curd slipping down your now distended gullet. To balance your meal, the dry fried green beans 四季豆 and garlicky aubergines 燒茄子 are wonderful accompaniments and actually great standalone main dishes in their own right. If you like your food spicier then ask for it so because they will adjust it down to what they perceive as Western tastes.

BBQ Village do not only do prepared dishes but also hotpot where you cook your own food at your table. In fact you’ll see a lot of the Chinese clientele hovering over steaming pots of stock poaching raw strips of meat. I’ve never ordered it myself because I believe hotpot is better done at home and besides I can’t get past all those amazing skewers and Sichuan dishes.

BBQ Village
Tel: 0121 643 5723
55 Station St, Birmingham B5 4DY

Abu Zayd

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Sometimes you just want a lamb kebab, simple as that. There’s plenty out there on our streets, the kebab shop next door to the Chicken hut, they’ll grill you a lamb seekh past the point of well done then some more. So what makes this Arabian grill restaurant different? The kebabs of course, lightly spiced and lacking the garish red colouring that most kebabs shops in Brum insist upon. You can actually taste the meat. What’s more they grill on charcoal and they know how to cook so the meat is still juicy. A couple of lamb kofte, big portion of rice, salad and Lebanese flatbread £6.50, simple.

Abu Zayd
412 Coventry Road, Small Heath, Birmingham B10 0UF

Chung Ying and Wing Wah

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A Cantonese foodie can only live for so long without blogging about Dim Sum. Since my last post about Chung Ying Garden I’ve done some extensive research on your behalf.

Wing Wah next to the Chinese hypermarket Wing Yip in Nechells has probably the best Cheung Fun 腸粉 in the whole city and generally the standard of the Dim Sum there is very good indeed. However I don’t know if I’ve been unlucky because everytime I’ve been I’ve had the noisiest migraine inducing experience. It’s just too popular with the buffet crowd who descend en masse at most lunchtimes. All-you-can-eat-Chinese-food seems to pull in some big noisy families which makes the vibe somewhere between that of a theme park and feeding time at the zoo. A shame for those eating from the Dim Sum menu and looking for a more relaxed meal. But try it out yourself, there’s plenty of free parking at least!

No I think I’ve found the best overall Dim Sum experience a lot closer to Chung Ying Garden, at the original Chung Ying. The ex-chef of my old favourite the Golden Pond has moved there and it shows. Every dish I’ve tried has been excellent. Har Gau 蝦餃 (pictured) is the litmus test for me. Like good nigiri sushi it looks simple but it’s in these apparently simple things that you can really judge the skill and discipline of the kitchen. These I can’t fault. Though I still think the steamed chicken feet in black bean sauce 豉汁鳳爪 not as good as they were at GP! Never completely happy am I?

Chung Ying
16 – 18 Wrottesley Street, Birmingham B5 4RT
Tel: 0121 622 5669

Wing Wah
278 Thimble Mill Ln, Nechells, Birmingham B7 5HD
Tel: 0121 327 7879

I had high hopes that China Court would surprise me after so many years. But recently eating over 50 items there in one sitting with 12 other Chinese diners, I realised those hopes were completely unfounded. None of us thought it was any good. There was one dish I actually thought was decent, but the rest was poor to middling. The taro puffs 芋頭角 were actively offensive, appearing to have been reheated several times over a considerable length of time. One to avoid!

Shanghai Blues (ex Golden Pond) is decidedly average and for some reason don’t do crispy fried squid 魷魚鬚 which is a must amongst my circle of friends. Though some of the Sichuan options can make it a little more diverse, the basic quality of the Dim Sum isn’t really up to level of the Chung Yings.