Café review: Cairo Café

Something I often bang on about often in restaurant reviews is that feeling of being elsewhere, of the power some places have to completely transport you, in mind if not in body. Restaurants as travel agents, taking you somewhere else without having to rack up a huge hotel bill or get to the airport two hours early, or feel that sense of gloom about no longer being able to join the “arrivals from the EU” queue.

Last Saturday evening I had dinner on the sunlit terrace at Buon Appetito, and I felt like I could have been anywhere on the continent but nowhere near Reading. My Aperol spritz shone a luminous orange, soft jazz was playing on the speakers and my pizza was speckled with savoury bombs of gorgonzola left, right and centre. At the end of the meal the manager brought over a couple of amaros for us to try – one from Sicily, rich and sweet, the other from Calabria, medicinal with rosemary and mint. Could I really be a stone’s throw from the Oxford Road? It felt hard to credit.

I had a similar feeling the following day, pretty much from the moment Zoë and I walked through the front door of Cairo Café. It’s where Beijing Noodle House used to be, in a site they’ve bizarrely divided into two not side by side, as usual, but front and back: you walk down a corridor to get to Nepalese restaurant Chillim Kitchen out back, but at the front, with a much smaller bright yellow sign advertising its presence, is Cairo Café.

Inside is a little room that could maybe seat ten people, if they knew each other extremely well. Two small tables for two are on the left, all vibrant tablecloths, and on the right is a high table seating four. A couple more stools are up at the window staring out onto West Street, which offers a characterful viewing experience. It’s tiny, but I loved it, with all the little touches like the black and white photos on the wall and a couple of clocks showing Cairo and Reading time.

Like many places serving lunch in town, the menu – in bright yellow above the counter betrays a certain amount of bet hedging. You can have a conventional panini or baguette, if that’s what you want, and the menu gives you all the mainstream choices – tuna mayo, brie and bacon, chicken tikka and so on. And at the counter you can see all the steel dishes with those fillings, if you want to try the same sort of thing you could easily get somewhere like Pierre’s. But the middle of the menu, marked “Cairo Street Food”, is the reason I went: a range of Egyptian dishes, some of which I’d tried and some I’d never heard of. And the kitchen, just about visible out back, is where all of these are conjured up.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any falafel” said the owner, aproned and smiling. “It’s been a crazy morning.” Undeterred I asked him to explain a few things on the menu I hadn’t heard of before, and discovered that warak enab was what I would recognise as dolmades, stuffed vine leaves. He went on to explain that sakalans was an iconic Egyptian dessert, a sandwich made with halva, cream and honey: I made a mental note not to leave without trying it. 

I placed my order – this is a venue where you pay at the end – and took a seat. The room had a strangely serene calm, and despite knowing that all the noise of the less salubrious end of town was just the other side of the door, I had that feeling of being transported, of not being in Kansas any more. I could see the owner up at the counter plucking fresh mint leaves for our tea and I had that dangerous feeling that comes from time to time, the slowly building hope that I might have discovered a gem. The tea, by the way, was cracking: fresh and fragrant.

Things improved still further when the chicken shawarma wraps arrived on their little tin plates. So many places don’t know how to assemble a wrap so it can be eaten, so instead either all of it falls out of the end or you get a giant indigestible clove hitch of tortilla. You wouldn’t want these people rolling you a joint, put it that way. By contrast Cairo Cafe’s wrap was a stunner, carefully assembled as a square and flattened under a grill – neat, no wasted space, and the crisped exterior almost reminiscent of a pastilla. 

And the chicken inside was terrific: the whole filling was, in fact, with some kind of beautiful alchemy of chicken, cheese, mint and (this might have been my imagination) a hint of something like cinnamon. I ate it slowly, partly because it was hot but mostly because I didn’t want it to end. This cost a ridiculous – and in all honesty, unsustainable – four pounds fifty. You should go and try it, before he puts his prices up. He should put his prices up.

While we ate our wraps, in a sort of wordless euphoria, something lovely happened. A couple of gents came in to the café looking for a late lunch, but clearly in a rush. The owner explained that he was preparing our dishes and that it would take him a while to put some baguettes together. Were they willing to wait? It transpired that they weren’t, and so they scarpered and as the owner came over to take our plates away he was splendidly unapologetic.

“I’m not making food in a hurry. I want to give people something they’ll remember” – a quiet smile at this point, because the two chaps in question looked like they might have struggled to recall what they did the night before – “even if only for a little while.”

I was happy that we’d been prepared to wait, because our remaining choices, from the more resolutely Egyptian section of the menu, all came together and largely kept up a very high standard. Possibly the weakest thing were the waraq enab: I love stuffed vine leaves, but these weren’t quite the best I’ve had, a little too saccharine. I don’t know if they’re made on the premises – they might be, because they felt a little ragged and slightly loosely wrapped – but I’ve had better, both at Bakery House and at Blue Collar, from Fink as part of their superb mezze boxes. A good example of wayward pricing, too: these cost as much as a shawarma wrap. I know which I’d rather have.

But the other two dishes we’d chosen returned to the high standard of those wraps. Moutabal was a bright, zingy thing shot through with parsley, perfect loaded on to pitta (the pitta, again, was a slight weakness: a little hard, and not quite enough of it, although I’m inclined to be more forgiving than it was). It didn’t have the smokiness I associate with some examples – this was a light and happy dish, not a dark and brooding one – but I didn’t like it any the less for that. Dark and brooding gets boring, doesn’t it.

Even better was the sojuk, a marvellous surprise and one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I was expecting something like Bakery House’s maqaneq – sausages cooked and served simply with onion and lemon juice – but what I got instead was wonderful pieces of coarse, caramelised sausages, punchy and brick-red inside, in a thick, spiced gravy (if I didn’t know better, I’d have likened it to a curry). Slow-cooked, soft pieces of green pepper and green chilli were in the mix, giving the potential for every mouthful to be a gorgeous sunburst of heat. 

Again, this was four pounds fifty and again I worry about the owner’s ability to make money charging so little. I ate forkful after forkful in beaming delight: Zoë loaded some on to a piece of pitta, dolloped some moutabal on top and said something to the effect of “this is really fucking good” between mouthfuls. It was, simply put, one of my favourite discoveries of 2022 so far, and I’m not sure I’m capable of going back and not ordering it.

As we reached the end, and sipped what was left of our mint tea, there was a moment of perfect peace. The hubbub of West Street had died away, no customers came in, the owner was out back. The clocks on the wall ticked away the advancing seconds, in Reading and Cairo, and I thought to myself: there’s something slightly magical about this place.

When the owner took these plates away, I asked him a little about Cairo Café. He’d been trading for four months, he said, and things were going well.

“Do you sell more stuff from the Egyptian side of the menu than the conventional dishes? It would be sad if most people who came here didn’t try this.”

Another grin.

“Yes, we do. But I try hard to convince people – we give out little samples, too.” I was reminded again of this man’s spiritual family here in Reading: people like Jo at Kungfu Kitchen, Nandana at Clay’s, Keti at Geo Café and Kamal at his eponymous new restaurant. People who believe in the narrative power of food, of telling stories, of welcoming you into their home with the food they grew up with.

“I’m glad customers don’t just come here for an English breakfast.”

“We don’t do one! We do that stuff in a baguette but we don’t do a full English. We sell an Egyptian breakfast instead” (it comes with falafel and shakshuka, by the way, and it sounds excellent).

“What should I order next time I come here?”

“I know we’ve sold out, but our falafel are really good. And you should try the beef livers.” I made a mental note: the menu says they come ‘all the way from Alexandria’.

The sojuk had a wonderful building heat, so I wanted something cooling and I’d left room for dessert so we ordered a couple more things. Again, the owner apologised that they would take a while but by that point I thought the prospect of another half an hour in Cairo Café was a positive boon, so I wasn’t complaining. First to arrive was a cooling drink which had rather been misplaced in the “Fresh juices” section, a drink made with yoghurt, milk and honey. I absolutely adored this – as a dairy fiend it’s right up my alley at the best of times, but what I loved about it the most was how light and delicate it was. It didn’t have that thick stubbornness a lassi can have, and the sweetness was almost floral, complementing things rather than beating you round the head. To add to the random pricing, this was four pounds but, for me, worth every penny.

Last of all, I had to try the sakalans. This took a while to prepare and I can honestly say I’ve never had anything like it – a warm, almost-crunchy baguette split lengthways and crammed with cream, honey and huge wedges of halva. I’ve loved halva for years – ironically, since my mother brought some back from a holiday in Egypt, and as a huge fan of sesame in all its forms this dish had a huge amount to appeal to me. The idea of sticking it in a sandwich had never occurred to me, but eating this I was delighted that it had occurred to someone. Zoë was a little less convinced by it, I suspect, but she was also either fuller, or more restrained, than me.

Our bill, for all that food and an hour and a half of serene, unmitigated delight, came to forty-five pounds, not including tip. I felt a compulsion to keep telling the owner how much I’d enjoyed everything, but eventually I realised I’d have to button it and stop thanking him. Besides, I have the opportunity to tell all of you instead, so it’s not as if I’m going to get an ulcer from suppressing anything. I went on my way absolutely convinced that I would be back, and positively evangelical about making sure some other people went there too.

My overwhelming feeling when I discover somewhere like Cairo Café is to think: how lucky are we in Reading? How lucky are we that despite the best efforts of the unholy trinity of Messrs Brock, Sykes and Horton-Baker, that cabal of the unimaginative, avaricious and dim-witted, people still come here to open their restaurants and their cafés, to battle away against the misguided focus of our public bodies and the bleak indifference of our local media. How lucky are we that we still get a gem like Cairo Café defying all of that inertia and doing their damnedest to get a foothold in this town?

It reminds me, many years ago, of another café only a few doors down from where Cairo Café is now: Cappuccina Café, a modest little place serving banh mi and pasteis de nata. I visited it, I rather liked it, I wrote a review and within a month it was closed. It remains, even now, one of the Reading closures I’m saddest about – more so, in a funny kind of way, than all the Mya Lacartes and Dolce Vitas out there; everybody misses them, but when I think of Cappuccina Café I sometimes think it’s mourned by me and me alone. I’m determined to do my bit to ensure that Cairo Café doesn’t go the same way. So please, go there and try the food: it has, I think, a little spark of magic. And heaven knows, we all need to keep that alive in Reading, as much as we possibly can.

Cairo Café – 8.3
13 West Street, Reading, RG1 1TT
07862 200055

https://www.instagram.com/cairocafe11/
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

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
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo