The venue for this week’s review was partly chosen as a result of circumstances: our train back from Bristol left mid-afternoon on Sunday, so we needed somewhere that would do a good lunch but not necessarily a leisurely one. For me this is where casual dining so often comes into its own, when you want something decent but not too expensive, briskly paced but not fast food. And this being Bristol, even that sector of the market is awash with attractive, interesting options so you never have to opt for the comfort zone of a chain restaurant. Could Asado, a burger restaurant at the top of the Christmas Steps, be the answer?
That arguably undersells Asado’s standing though, as if I’d merely looked at a map of the city and tried to find something affordable within walking distance. In fact, it has built a formidable reputation since it opened five years ago, with many people thinking it arguably does Bristol’s best burger (a title awarded to it last September – although only by the local Reach plc website, so perhaps not carrying that much cachet after all).
Its pedigree is decent too – the owner is an alumnus of Patty & Bun, who for my money served probably the best burger I’ve ever had. He moved to Bristol determined to offer something a little different, and Asado’s selling point when it opened was that the burgers were cooked over a wood-fired grill. The menu also had a mixture of traditional and South American influences, and the hype was considerable: this was back when Bristol had quite a few restaurant blogs, although the last review of Asado I can find from anywhere is nearly four years old.
Having survived the pandemic Asado made a properly leftfield move when it came to expansion – the owner decided to move to Barcelona, so they just opened a second branch there. As you do. There’s something quite admirable about that – I know we often look at restaurants outside Reading and wish they’d expand in our direction, but given a choice between, say, the Ding and Barcelona who can blame them for heading south?
Anyway Asado seemed to be thriving in its original branch, and although we were the first customers there when it opened at one by the time we left plenty of the tables were occupied with groups, big and small, working their way through the menu (and drinking cocktails in many cases, which made me feel about a hundred years old).
The restaurant is made up of two rooms – a narrow front room, also home to the bar, which has a snugger, more conspiratorial air and a back room which feels more open and spacious due to a lovely big skylight. Furniture was the kind of standard-issue mixture of distressed chairs and what looked like old school chairs, and the overall effect was a little like a classier version of Bluegrass BBQ. We sat in the back room, and what it gained in natural light it lost because of a certain lingering chilliness.
The menu was encouragingly concise, with a limited number of variations on a theme. So you can have the beef burger as it comes, or enhanced with pulled beef, pastrami or skirt steak. The chicken burger either comes with guacamole and chipotle mayo or with hot sauce (Warning! Hot is very hot, the menu said) and blue cheese dressing. There are two options for vegetarians, with the burgers made by Huera – from pea protein, as far as I could tell by Googling – with pulled jackfruit if you fancy it.
Both of those can be made vegan by request, although you miss out on the West Country cheddar: Asado makes much of using proper local cheese rather than plastic American slices. Burgers tend to range from fourteen to eighteen pounds and come with fries and slaw, and you can double up anything apart from the chicken burgers for three quid.
As is generally the case with this kind of restaurant the smaller dishes were labelled as sides rather than starters, although the woman serving us did give us the option of having them separately as starters if we wanted, a nice touch. Service, incidentally, was superb, bright and enthusiastic; she started out by complimenting Zoë’s make up, which is a great way of getting anybody on side. From what I could tell she was bilingual as well, because the Spanish names of our dishes were pronounced flawlessly and I’m pretty sure I heard her talking to a neighbouring table in Spanish.
She brought over a couple of beers for us – the draft beer here is by local New Bristol Brewery – and from that point onwards I felt in very capable hands. We tried the table beer, Three Falling (it’s three per cent ABV, you see) and I thought it did a great job of packing a lot of flavour into a pretty sessionable strength. By that point in the weekend I was simultaneously sworn off drinking for quite some time and thinking three per cent is hardly booze at all: it’s surprisingly easy to hold both those ideas in your head at the same time.
If I had a fiver for every time I’ve written Zoë ordered better than me on this over the last four years, I could probably review quite a few restaurants in 2023 without putting my hand in my pockets. And so it proved here, because the Pollo Libre, Asado’s (more) basic chicken burger, was fantastic. A lot of hefty chicken thigh, fried in a nicely seasoned, crunchy and craggy coating, would have been pretty unimprovable even on its own, but the extras took it just that little bit further. “This guacamole is great” said Zoë, “and it’s positively singing with lime”. I was allowed a bite, which was enough to confirm that she was right and to make me slightly regret my own choice.
I’d decided to go for the entry level burger, the eponymous Asado. It’s the most stripped-down one they do but it still has plenty going on with the patty, that West Country cheddar and plenty of different sauces – chimichurri, confit garlic mayo and ketchup and some pickled red onions on top. And I liked it just fine, but it didn’t blow me away as I’d hoped. Part of that might just be expectation management: I thought that the burger itself would have a wow factor from having been grilled over fire but I didn’t get a huge amount of char or caramelisation, or the smokiness I was expecting. And it didn’t feel to me like all those sauces were working in harmony – less might have been more, in that respect. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.
Credit to them, though, for making a burger that you could just about eat without unhooking your jaw, in a not-too-sweet brioche that had the structural integrity to keep it together. Perhaps I should have had it with extras, but I wanted to think that the burger could stand on its own two feet without that. Instead I had some of the smoky pulled beef on top of my rosemary fries and it was positively transformative – a beautiful tangle of savoury, smoky and sweet strands of slow-cooked beef that quite made my afternoon. You can have these on your burger if you order the El Don, and next time I probably would. The slaw, which was dressed rather than with mayo, felt a little underdressed and felt like it was there mainly for appearances. It did look pretty, though.
If that was the whole story, it might have been a little underwhelming but it was the sides and the extras that lifted Asado into more interesting territory. I’ve already raved about the pulled beef, but I also adored our grilled courgettes. Asado used to do courgette fritti but this was much more vibrant and interesting – batons of courgette just-cooked but blackened on the outside, striped with a well-balanced sriracha mayo. More virtuous than yet more fried stuff, but still indulgent. I could have eaten a bucketload more of this.
Speaking of fried stuff, the sides and bar snacks section of the menu featured croquetas with more of that pulled beef in them and morcilla nuggets – breadcrumbed spheres of black pudding fried until crispy and dished up with a chimichurri mayo. The latter are three pounds each or four for eight pounds fifty, and when we only asked for a couple the waitress asked if we were sure. And when we said we were she took our order, although I wish with hindsight that she’d said “Seriously, you should reconsider: they’re fucking amazing”. Because they were – the perfect snacking size, possibly two bites maximum of deep, delicious black pudding only slightly lightened by the mayo. If I’d known how manageable they were, I’d have ordered four. To myself.
And if I’d known how small they were, I would have made room for the four morcilla nuggets by passing on the chicken wings. They were decent enough, although again the smoke didn’t really come through on them at all, and I loved the sweetness of the pineapple and agave glaze, with a little heat. But they reminded me of everybody I’ve ever worked with who had short man syndrome: small and stubborn, to the point where however nice they might be you did find yourself thinking is this worth the effort? On balance, perhaps not. I could have had some of those pulled beef croquetas instead, or saved room for dessert. There’s only one on the menu, a passion fruit cheesecake, but I bet it’s marvellous.
With us done and dusted, all that remained was to settle up. Our meal for two with a couple of pints, probably more sides than we needed and including a needlessly low ten per cent optional tip, came to just over seventy six pounds. We were out the door more quickly than planned, so we wandered across to Bristol’s branch of C.U.P. on Park Street, a little slice of home from home, and sat outside with one of their peerless mochas, looking down the hill and imagining what it would be like to live in Bristol. Would it still be so amazing then, or is the grass always greener at the other end of the M4?
Summing up this review is difficult. My Bristolian readers (and it seems I have more than I thought) will probably already know about Asado and have firm opinions about it. Especially if they also read Bristol’s Reach plc website, which looks almost as trashy as ours. And for the rest of you, it’s a little more difficult. If you are absolutely mad about burgers I would say yes, you should definitely go. One of the best burger restaurants in Bristol is very likely, on paper, to be one of the best in the country. And if you happen to be in Bristol and you want a quick meal, not far from the train station, it’s very easy to give Asado an unqualified recommendation.
Is it enough to build a visit to Bristol around the way that, say, Wilsons, Marmo or Caper and Cure are? No, probably not. But that’s no bad thing. Not every restaurant can be Lionel Messi. Somebody has to be Luke Shaw, and there’s no shame in that. And it’s definitely a level above Honest, which is most people’s Reading benchmark.
“I saw you went to Wings Diner” said Gurt Wings’ James when I went to Blue Collar the following Friday for my regular dose of his Japanese fried chicken. That figured: Mr Gurt always has an eye out on Instagram and never misses a trick so he’d seen all my meals in Bristol, even the ones I didn’t write about.
“Yeah, it was really pretty good. Especially the Korean dip.”
“You know where you should go in Bristol? There’s a place called Seven Lucky Gods and their Korean fried chicken is out of this world.”
See? It never ends. Nonetheless, I made a note for next time.
Asado – 8.2
90 Colston Street, Bristol, BS1 5BB