When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.
I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t.
No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.
In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.
But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States.
These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.
“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.
Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”.
So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.
It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.
Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.
“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”
She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.
It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.
I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh.
We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.
Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.
“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.
“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?
More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything.
A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months. Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.
Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.
“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”
I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.
If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.
The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.
I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.
It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.
SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.
So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.
Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD