Yard Sale Pizza – Simply Irresistible

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A long time ago… In a galaxy far, far away… I used to judge a pizza by the number of toppings it had. Wall-to-wall was my style. The more the better; bacon in every bite, feta on every slice, gooey green avocado all over the place. I’m ashamed to admit it, but at one point, I even dabbled with cheese (and hot dog) stuffed crusts. But then, one day, a concerned Italian friend set me straight. “A good pizza is a combination of delicate flavours,” he said. And ever since, I’ve shunned over-the-top, conveyor belt-style American pizzas in favour of hand-stretched, stone-baked, elegantly dressed creations with soul and charisma.

So far, my favourite “authentic” joint dishing up said soul pizzas is Pizza Pilgrims, Dean Street. But a close second – for now – is relatively new pizzeria Yard Sale Pizza in Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park (and Clapton). It’s just around the corner from me and I’m practically addicted to their margherita; tomato sauce, fior di latte mozzarella, olive oil and fresh basil. For such a stark, basic-seeming pizza, the taste is incredible. It’s all in the details.

Papa John’s may brag about “better ingredients” but they’ve got nothing on Yard Sale. For example, for their “tomato sauce,” Yard Sale use Narello authentic “Italian peeled tomatoes” – and proudly display them in their front window. And their ice cream isn’t made by Ben & Jerry, it’s homemade, Italian-style – using locally sourced natural ingredients – by Highbury based Nonna’s Gelato. The beer selection’s decent as well, with a range of Five Points and Brooklyn brews to choose from. There are wines, too, if that’s your bag.

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Sometimes, when I’m feeling saucy, I up my margherita ante to a Holy Pepperoni; Cobble Lane pepperoni, regular pepperoni and spicy Nduja sausage, all scattered randomly, with love and affection, on fior di latte mozzarella and tomato sauce.

I first discovered spreadable, hot red pepper-packed Calabrian Nduja sausage at Pizza Pilgrims, and I can’t get enough of the stuff. In fact, Yard Sale’s Holy Pepperoni is a close match to Pizza Pilgrims’ Nduja pizza, and it’s difficult to say which one I like more. With Yard Sale (and Pizza Pilgrims), it’s all in the cheese, tomato and freshness. The way the pizza’s made right in front of you, in about five minutes. Speaking of which, it’s about time I took a stroll…

The Burger Chronicles #23 – MEATliquor, Angel

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We stumble out of Rogue One at 10:40pm, desperate for a burger. Nervously, I call MEATliqour N1 – which is just a few minutes away on Upper Street. Turns out the kitchen closes at 11:00pm, but as long as we’ve ordered before then we’re golden. We pick up the pace, dissecting the movie’s epic battle scenes briskly as we steam up the road with burgers in our eyes.

When we get there MEATliqour is DEAD. The only people left are two cooks desperate to punch out, a bearded waiter with tattoos up to his eyeballs and a drunk-looking couple at the bar. The place looks incredible, though; grimey horror movie chic with an artistic flair. There’s a glowing upside McDonald’s sign pointing out the WCs, last-scrawl-looking words of warning adorn the walls and old TVs play random loops and creepy CCTV footage, straight out of a Saw film.

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We order two bacon cheeseburgers, buffalo fries, buffalo wings and four Moor Beer Nor’ Hops. The kitchen gets the news and the chefs don’t look pleased. Still, they lumber into action. Looks like we made it, Burger Manilow.

I’ve been to MEATliquor W1 before, which is similarly red, black, white and stylish. But I wasn’t expecting such a big, well-put-together space from the inconspicuous neon MEATliqour sign hanging in Upper Street.

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When the food arrives we’re both impressed with the presentation. It’s closing time. Ten minutes ago these guys were ready to clean the grills and power down. Yet everything looks immaculate. The burgers have this kind of bacon chip crisp layer on top of them, which makes them look like chicken burgers from the top down. But there’s no mistaking the hunk of cheese-coated beef hulking underneath when I grab it.

The burger’s straightforward and simple, and reminds me of a pumped up Dirty Burger. There’s no MEATliquor sauce, gooey caramelized onions or sweet bacon jam. Instead, the burger’s dressed in raw red onions, pickles, lettuce, French’s mustard and ketchup. The patty’s thick and tasty, but overall, the package is a little on the dry side. The wings are good, too. Not amazing, but good. Routine. A bit like The Diner’s; simple and to the point. And like The Diner’s, blue cheese sauce makes all the difference.

In the end, I’m not as blown away by the burger as I was by the presentation – of the restaurant and the food. And the standout highlight of the night is probably the buffalo fries, which are covered in “house-made buffalo sauce” and deliciously melty crumbled blue cheese. Otherwise, the food lacks that special something that makes a burger magical.

Burgershack

The Burger Chronicles #22 – BIRD’s Crimbo Burger

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When Burger Club picked Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Burger for Christmas dinner, I have to admit, I came down with a bad case of FoMO. And top of my Burger Buyer’s Remorse list was BIRD’s mighty Crimbo Burger. But, as you’ll remember, the trip to Lucky Chip worked out pretty well for me, and there’s no reason I can’t try another Christmas burger – or all of them – this festive period. After all, ’tis the season to stuff your face, relatively guilt free.

I leave it late, but finally, when the leftovers have run dry, I grab two buddies and head down to BIRD’s Holloway Road joint for another Christmas dinner. The first thing we say to our waitress is, “Please tell us you have Crimbo Burgers.” She looks at us, blankly, giving nothing away. “Just let me check with the kitchen,” she replies. Then she disappears. We sit in anxious silence, nervously hoping for the breast. Needless to say, it’s a long minute.

“We’re all good guys,” she says. “We’ve got a few left. But I think today’s the last day.” Hallelujah, it’s a Christmas miracle. We order three, with Cheesy Korean Fries and pints of London Pale Ale all round.

When the burgers arrive they’re breathtaking. There’s no other way to describe them. We literally stare at them, without breathing, our faces frozen with a mixture of disbelief and excitement. In photos, the Crimbo Burger looks almost unreal. Photoshopped, even. Yet here’s an identical trio of them, looking just as beautiful, delicious and vertical as BIRD’s Instagram account would have you believe.

First, I pick off my bacon-wrapped jalapeño popper starter. And the well-dressed mini sausages pop in my mouth, exploding with cheese, pork, bacon and tangy jalapeño. Impressively, the burger has two wooden skewers through it; one for the poppers and another larger one to support the rest of the burger. Someone knows what they’re doing.

I squash my burger so there’s a small chance it might fit in my mouth. And wow. Panko-coated fried brie erupts in my mouth, squirting everywhere as I sink my teeth in. It’s backed up by a sweet cranberry glaze and BIRD’s trademark crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside free range fried chicken. And it’s all held together by the burger’s crunchy, hash brown-like sage and onion stuffing patty. The combination of flavours and textures, of sweet, sour, crunchy, hot and saucy, is mesmerising. I just can’t get it back in my mouth quick enough.

I do hit a wall, though. I think it’s the stuffing. But it all tastes so good, I keep going. In hindsight, I rush it. All that anticipation and it’s over in minutes. Still, every bite was so full of flavour and personality, maybe that’s all I needed. All I could take.

I pick at my neglected fries and parsnip crisps, sip on my full beer and try to wrap my head around what I’ve just eaten. Decadent. Heavenly. And way too dangerous to add to the regular BIRD menu. Once a year will do. Or not. What a burger…

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The Burger Chronicles #21 – Shake Shack’s SmokeShack

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So, I finally sunk my teeth into a Shake Shack burger and, I’m sad to say, it was a massive letdown. To set the scene; it’s Covent Garden, the place is bursting with tourists, giant disco balls hang from the ceiling and the smell of mulled wine lingers like the last vestige of Christmas. I spot a Shake Shack through the people thicket and decide to cross another entry off my global burger list.

The joint’s swarming, but still, I’m surprised by the slick, conveyor-belt operation playing out in front of me. From the neat, multi-pronged curly fry production line to the smiling, airport-driver style delivery crew, everything’s been operations-managed and streamlined to churn out burgers, fries and shakes as efficiently as possible. It’s quite something to behold, really, but not what I was expecting at all. Kind of like a green Five Guys/McDonald’s hybrid – only more McDonald’s, less Five Guys.

I order a single SmokeShack – registered trademark, of course – which is topped with applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry peppers and the trademarked ShackSauce. I take my vibrating receiver and make my way to the food court. When the receiver lights up I head over to the Shake Shack welcome station and grab my burger from the smiley crew. It’s tiny. I can’t believe it.

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I sit down in the food court, underwhelmed. Everything tastes alright, for a good 24-hour McDonald’s at 1:00am, but the burger’s dry, flavourless and cheap-seeming. The cheese is randomly dribbled over the lifeless patty. The bacon sticks out all over the place. And the bun looks like it was meant for a slider burger – or a kid’s patty.

Upon further inspection, there’s absolutely no sauce whatsoever, trademark or not. Until the very end, that is, when I realise it’s all been pinched up at the back of the burger, along with the stash of chopped cherry peppers – and the registered trademarks. Sauce discovered, the last two bites are less dry and flavourless, but still, they fail to impress. It’s like a toy burger. The kind you’d heat up in a microwave. I almost don’t want an In-N-Out Burger now. Yes, I do…

shake-shack

The Burger Chronicles #20 – Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Xmas Burger

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Make no mistake, this decision was not entered into lightly. Burger Club’s end of year Christmas blowout called for a festive burger of immense proportions. Something special and exotic, the kind of Christmas-only decadence that makes your mouth dribble just reading about it. And finally, after digging around on Instagram for weeks and weighing up our options, we narrowed it down to three; MEATliquor’s XXXmas Burger, the Hawksmoor Christmas Burger and Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Burger. In the end we chose Rudolph to guide our burger sleigh tonight.

Some burger joints haven’t embraced the OTT festive period. While some have, but haven’t bothered to shoot their creations professionally. I was especially let down by two of my favourites, Patty & Bun and Stokey Bears (didn’t even play). Lucky Chip, on the other hand, went all out. Their expertly shot, creatively put-together “Santa’s Special,” the Rudolph Burger, ticks all the boxes; deer patty, stilton, applewood smoked bacon, aioli and an intriguing blueberry, blackberry and gin jam. My tongue does cartwheels now, just thinking about it.

Nestled in Ridley Food Market, Lucky Chip, Dalston is the ultimate gentrified hipster burger joint. It’s literally across the road from a group of local butcheries and your table view prominently features hung animal carcasses, heads and other bloody goodies. Inside, we’re worlds apart, and the music’s all classic soft hits like Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” and “Eye of the Tiger.”

The beer options are great but super expensive. The Cloudwater double IPAs are £8 a bottle and a can of Beavertown Gamma Ray sets you back a fiver. The staff are super attentive and polite, and their somewhat smug, knowing looks suggest we’re in for something special.

When the burgers arrive, all at once, we’re blown away by the presentation. Forget that scene in Falling Down, where Michael Douglas compares his flat, depressing-looking Whammyburger to the glorious, radiant photo of it on the menus behind the counter. Because the Rudolph Burger is every bit as beautiful in the flesh. It’s a work of art. And my picturesque spicy mayo cheese fries play a decadent supporting role. The table goes quiet as we all nibble at chips and onion rings and size up our first bites.

The perfectly cooked deer patty is juicy, tender and stuffed with flavour, and the applewood bacon is glorious. I still can’t believe it. On its own, I’m not a massive fan of stilton, but paired with the sweet blackberry, blueberry and gin jam the cheese gains unholy gooey superpowers. Throw in a dash of aioli and a bed of rocket and you’ve got something really special.

I try to hold back and make it last but I can’t get the burger back in my mouth quick enough. In a sea of delicious, dynamic, new-age burgers, the Rudolph really is a standout. One of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten, in fact. And I honestly can’t believe how well the flavours compliment each other. Santa knows what he’s doing back there, behind the grill.

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The Burger Chronicles #19 – Ho Ho Homeburger

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It’s Friday night. I’m in the mood for a Christmas burger. And my eyes light up when I spot Holloway Road burger slingers Homeburger’s festive new offering, the Ho Ho Homeburger. In my excitement I glaze over the description, hurriedly picking out words like “buttermilk” and “cranberry sauce,” and licking my lips as I add it to my basket.

When it arrives 40 minutes later I’m overwhelmed. It’s immense. An impressive stack of Sunday roast ingredients reimagined for the Instagram generation. Crispy buttermilk chicken with the sweet hint of cranberry sauce on a bed of sautéed garlic carrots, roasted parsnips and sprout slaw. All smothered in gravy. Wow. But as I keep biting I hit a sneaky sub level of roast potatoes and sage and onion stuffing. Come to think of it, the bun tastes more like yorkshire pudding than brioche. I read the description on the website again in disbelief and sure enough, there it is, in black and grey. Holy shit.

The Ho Ho Homeburger is literally a loosen-your-top-button, nap-on-the-couch Christmas roast shaped like a burger. It’s staggering, but surprisingly, it holds together well. Even more surprisingly, it takes you to the very edges of excess without crossing the border – well, maybe just a toe. It’s decadent, delicious and over the top. Just like a Christmas dinner should be. It’s also a great way to kick start the festive season. Ho ho ho…

Burgershack

KERB Camden Market – Mother Clucker

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Finally, after months of drooling over their Instagram feed, I hit London-based street food curator Kerb Food’s Camden Market spot to check out what all the social media fuss is about.

Pushing my way past a horde of tourists frozen by the light of their mobile phones, I squeeze my way into the market’s West Yard. Thanks to the addition of hip eating joints like Bird, Honest Burgers and Chin Chin Labs (and the disappearance of Bang Bang Chicken) the Camden Market food map has changed pretty dramatically over the past few years. Competition, it seems, has never been so tough – which is great news for new-age food-loving nutcases with smartphones… like me.

The West Yard looks more or less the same, only now, 34 hand-picked stalls proudly display their “We’re with KERB” signs. And at first glance, it seems like it’s all the tastiest, most dynamic and creative-sounding traders that have signed up; like bagel kings Ghetto Grillz, beef bourguignon and melted cheese burger junkies The Patate, Club Mexicana and the Louisiana Chilli Shack.

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But straight away I spot a few people carrying trays of Mother Clucker chicken strips – another Instagram account I’ve been meaning to experience in the real world. That striped mayo swirl is unmistakable. Still, I check out my options and almost get distracted by Baba G’s Bhangra Burgers. Then I catch sight of Mother Clucker and it’s all over.

The menu’s limited to chicken strips and Cajun fries, but when I see the tattooed, black-gloved dude at the back tossing fries in Cajun spices and adjusting his fry timers with such flair and gusto, I’m sold. He asks what sauces I’d like, lime mayo or pepper sauce. “Can I try a bit of both, please?” I ask. He nods with approval and decorates my chicken and fries with white and red stripes.

Once I’ve eluded the vape cloud-bellowing masses I dig in. The “tea-brined, buttermilk-soaked, twice-battered” coating is crunchy, rich and delicious. Yet somehow, it’s also fresh and light, without that unwanted oily residue you might find in pre-KERB Camden Market chicken strips. The Cajun fries are great too – a far cry from the pre-packaged frozen fries being served nearby. And that lime mayo! Camden, you’ve KERBed my enthusiasm. And you’d better believe I’ll be back…

The Burger Chronicles #17 – Patty & Bun, Goodge Street

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Imagine my excitement when I heard there was a new Patty & Bun store opening in Goodge Street, and EVERYTHING was half price… for the first week. Needless to say, I was drinking beers in the queue, mentally willing people to leave, quicker than Fred Flintstone gets a side of ribs when that bird sounds the hometime alarm.

We get there early and the queue’s already spiralling out of control. Some of our team members catch Pokemons while others discuss our last trip to Patty & Bun, and how this time, as it’s half price, we’re all going to order our own Winger Winger Chicken Dinner smoked confit wings side. My mouth waters at the thought, as a group of inconsiderate stragglers does their Citymapping inside, after they’ve paid their bill, instead of outside on the street like decent people. Eventually, we’re in.

Heartbreak. They’re sold out of wings. We discuss the possibility of Deliverooing some over from the James Street store while we eat, but eventually settle for fries and cheese balls. Hardly a worthy consolation prize.

The joint itself is awesome. A perfect, although slightly roomier, version of the James Street store. The Liverpool Street one lacks the same moodily lit, loud music and bustling, cramped eating feel. It’s more of a lunchtime market stall for hungry office workers, with no vibe and a few chairs lining the perimeter. This is the real deal. Vibe for days.

When the burgers arrive I can’t believe my eyes. The presentation’s perfect and my Ari Gold with bacon’s cooked exactly how I requested. Pretty impressive when you consider how many burgers the kitchen’s churning out – at half price.

As soon as my teeth sink in my eyes light up. You can’t beat an Ari Gold. Simple, classy and delicious; a high-quality, well flavoured beef patty with that perfect smokey mayo and pickled onions twist. However, with Patty & Bun, it’s their confit wings that really seal the deal.

Leaving with that sticky, smoky BBQ sauce stuck to the inside of your lips is what convinces you it’s the best. Those wings are a miracle. And tonight, the mighty Patty & Bun does seem a bit more mortal without them. The burger’s still probably the best, but it’s a lot closer. My last Stokey Bears burger really gave the Ari Gold a run for its money. Damn, now I’m hungry again.

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The Burger Chronicles #16 – Bleecker St., Southbank

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There’s been a lot of buzz about Bleecker St.’s burgers in my small, tightly knit burger circles lately. One of my favourite Instagram food blogs, New York-based Devour Power, even added a Bleecker St. double cheeseburger to its must-do list of tasty London treats. And as I happened to find myself in Southbank the day I saw the mouthwatering post, I figured the stars had aligned.

The Bleecker St. container setup has grown since the last time I was under Hungerford Bridge. A wide food court and opposing bar container (with WAY overpriced beers) have been added, setting the joint up as more of an informal restaurant than a simple caravan burger by the Thames.

The line is intense and the crew is working hard to manage customers’ expectations. It looks like a neat operation, just way more of a mass production line than I’d imagined. I order a bacon cheeseburger and some fries and hang onto my vibrating pager for what feels like forever. When it finally lights up I head over to the counter and collect my burger and fries.

Instantly I’m shocked by how small it is. I see lettuce on some of the other burgers and ask if I can get a leaf. “We don’t put lettuce on cheeseburgers,” is the reply. But she takes the burger back and a slice of green is added anyway – anything to bulk it up a bit.

The burger doesn’t last long and my opinion’s made up just as quickly. The meat’s cooked perfectly and bursting with flavour. But the burger’s tiny; the “craft” burger equivalent of McDonald’s 99p cheeseburger. I mean, the bacon’s cooked just right, the onions taste great, but overall it’s just plain and instantly forgettable. Nothing special. Not made with any love or devotion.

And to top it off, the roll tastes cheap and inconsequential. Like a dry toasted sesame bun you’d buy in a plastic bag from Sainsbury’s. Really, whoever voted Bleecker St. London’s best burger for Time Out magazine in 2015 needs to get out more.

Five Guys

The Reuben – 125 Church Street, Stoke Newington

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In 2015 Max’s Sandwich Shop won an Observer Food Monthly Best Cheap Eats Award. And for some reason, one line of sandwich guru Max Halley’s Guardian interview always stuck out in my mind.

“If I did a Reuben, say, then people would remember the one they had on the Brooklyn Bridge looking at New York, and no Reuben I do is going to taste as good,” he said, explaining why he creates his own breaded works of art to “manage expectations.” 125 Church Street, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same hangup when it comes to the weight of expectation. Its Reuben kicks ass – without the Brooklyn Bridge.

125 Church Street is a standout N16 hangout, offering locally roasted coffee, a great range of rotating craft beer, cool tunes and a cozy beer garden that really opens the place up. The design’s slick, elaborately understated and cool. And it’s the kind of place that never seems open when you walk past – think Paddy’s Pub without the sign (that’s an It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia reference, kids).

The biggest attraction, however, is the cafe’s grilled sandwiches. Options include The Cuban (pulled pork), a grilled cheese, a grilled cheese with deli ham, the Cyprus Grill (veg), the Wrappers Delight (slow-cooked lamb), the Tokyo Wrap (teriyaki chicken) and the aforementioned Reuben. But as soon as I read the Reuben’s description everything else simply melts away; seven day house-cured salt beef, mustard, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island sauce served on rye bread.

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My sandwich comes with coleslaw and crisps, and it takes me less time to eat than it took the friendly bartender to grill it. The salt beef falls apart and the Swiss cheese and sauerkraut blend with the mustard and thousand island sauce, coating the rye bread perfectly and making me lick my lips as I wolf it down with mouthfuls of coleslaw and crisps. I wash it all down with a Beavertown Gamma Ray and think, “I’ll be back…”