Restaurant review: Smash N Grab

Even this week, a full month after it opened, there are still queues outside Wendy’s on Station Road. I walked past on my way back through town around half-four on a weekday afternoon and was surprised to see a line of people waiting outside, desperate to get their fix. I guess all those puff pieces in Berkshire Live must have had the desired effect – who needs to pay for advertising when you have a local churnalism website desperate for copy? – but I still found it mystifying. Could the Baconator (all 960 calories of it) really be so amazing that a town collectively loses its shit? It seemed far-fetched.

The obvious thing to do this week would be to review Wendy’s: it’s been open for over a month by now, and there’s been so much hype that you might reasonably want to know what it’s like. But instead, you get a review of Smash N Grab, a little burger hole in the wall on Cemetery Junction, because I’m stubborn like that. And, to be honest, if you’re a regular reader of this blog there’s at least an outside chance you’re stubborn like that too. Wendy’s doesn’t need anybody’s help, not with our local media shilling for them, but even if Smash N Grab turns out to be good, in that location, it’s going to need all the help it can get.

The location in question is the little hut just next to the building that used to be the Granby: it’s now branded as Sprinkles Gelato, although the dessert place lies vacant, having closed at some indeterminate point last year. You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing survives on the junction, given that the Smash N Grab site used to house Caribbean takeaway Seasons, and after Seasons ceased trading another business called Hungry Hut opened (and duly closed) on the premises. 

Smash N Grab opened earlier this year, and its thing is smashed burgers. Smashed burgers, for the uninitiated, are burgers where the patty, rather than being carefully shaped, is smashed onto the griddle. The idea is that they are flatter, thinner and more irregular, meaning more surface area and more intense flavour from the Maillard reaction, that magical caramelisation that happens when meat meets heat. An occasional trader at Blue Collar called Boigers does smashed burgers, but in Reading the fashion is still for fatter, juicier, more conventional burgers, so I thought it would be interesting to see what the fuss was about. 

The thing that clinched it, though, was looking at how Smash N Grab operated online. Not on social media, although they have a well looked after Instagram account which regularly puts up very fetching pictures of their burgers. No, what impressed me was how they handled their Google reviews. They had gone in and replied to a lot of them and it was clear from what they said that they’d thought a lot about how to go about things: which buns to use, how to make the burger easier to eat, whether to make their own fries or buy them in.  

They also said something in passing that properly landed with me. It’s tough being the small fish, they said. So I decided to pay them a solo visit before the England semi-final while Zoë was working a late shift. I strolled down Erleigh Road, past MNKY Lounge festooned with bunting emblazoned with the flag of St George, big screen outside and its seats beginning to fill up. It was a warm, sunny early evening, and the air was thick with excitement and expectation – mainly, truth be told, from people who weren’t old enough to have experienced much football-related disappointment.

Although Smash N Grab really is just a small hut with no room to eat in, they’ve done a good job with the space outside which has four tables and would seat about a dozen people in total. The menu is incredibly straightforward – you pick your burger (mostly beef, although a couple of chicken options are available) and you can either turn it into a meal by adding fries and a soft drink for two pounds or fries and a shake for four. Smash N Grab’s beef is Angus and halal which also means that bacon isn’t an option with these burgers, although they do offer optional halal beef bacon which I didn’t try. The shakes are the other distinctive feature of the menu: they’re “cake shakes” which, from a Google, means that they contain milk, ice cream and, well, cake. They are, and I’m sure this won’t surprise you, an American thing. 

I felt like it needed to be done, largely because it was there, so I ordered their classic double cheeseburger, “The Regular”, with fries and a chocolate cake shake; it came to just shy of thirteen pounds. I paid at the counter and they told me they’d bring it out, so I took my seat outside and enjoyed the buzz of Cemetery Junction, watching the cars rushing home in time for kick off and the people wandering past, toting carrier bags laden with lager. 

Two young chaps, one with a crate of Budweiser, the other with a crate of Foster’s, sat outside waiting for their burgers. One was wearing an England shirt, and they smelled strongly of Lynx Africa and the unassailable confidence of youth. Or at least I thought so, until one of them complained about the front page of The Sun saying that the final was bound to be between England and Italy. “They’d better not jinx it” he said. Of all the things to take against The Sun for: still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

My cake shake turned up first, and although I did my best to wait until my meal had arrived curiosity got the better of me. It was very thick and chocolatey – it definitely tested the wide cardboard straw to its limits – and the chunks of cake in it felt pleasingly like cookie dough. It was a tiny bit synthetic-tasting, but that wasn’t offputting. The experience of drinking it reminded me a little of reading Take A Break on an airplane – hugely enjoyable, partly because I do it so rarely, but by the end I was glad it wasn’t a habit and I felt a tiny bit grubby (that’s not necessarily a bad feeling in moderation by the way: I’m happy that I tried it). 

If I had a constructive criticism – and constructively criticising a cake shake feels a bit like expressing the opinion that Mr Blobby might want to consider pastel colours i.e. somewhat missing the point – I would say that the shake needed more ice cream in the mix. I wasn’t sure it had any in it, but it would have made it a little thicker and a lot colder: what’s a milkshake, if it doesn’t give you head freeze?

Several forceful slurps into my milkshake a lady brought out my burger and fries. Let’s get the fries out of the way first – they weren’t good. They looked the part, from a distance, but up close quite a few of them had grey patches and weren’t too appealing. Smash N Grab is quite up front about the fact that they tried making their own fries but it was just too time-consuming: that’s absolutely fair enough, but they should consider buying in better ones. Not only that, but from the smell when they were frying and the taste when I tried them it felt a little bit like the frying oil had been round the block too many times. I didn’t eat many of my fries: the meal had quite enough calories already without adding empty ones.

Happily, the burger was another story. It was everything a burger should be but rarely is – well constructed, easy to eat, lots going on without being too busy. The patties had great texture – plenty of crinkly edges, charred and caramelised crenellations – and, crucially, they didn’t drip everywhere but were nowhere near dry or crumbly. There was a glorious layer of orangey American plastic cheese, slightly caramelised too from contact with the grill, and there were thick, crunchy pickles to add sharpness. A little caramelised onion relish gave just enough sweetness, and the whole thing was finished beautifully with Smash N Grab’s special sauce which threw a little heat into the mix.  

Like I said, plenty going on, but somehow it all worked together very nicely. Even the bun – sesame seeded, big enough to hold the contents and firm enough not to get soggy and fall apart – was well chosen. It was by the company that supplies Blue Collar’s Meat Juice with burger buns, which gave me confidence that they’d put as much thought into their burger as Meat Juice did (which is a lot). Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my burger, as you can probably tell by now. Halfway through the meal I wish I’d gone for the triple-decker “Beef’d Up”, so next time I’ll skip the shake and give it a try. “That’s what I would have had” Zoë told me. “Go hard or go home”. She probably had a point, although my arteries would probably have gone hard too.

As I was putting my empties (and most of the fries) in the bin, the owner came out and asked me how it was. I told him I liked it, which was largely true, and asked him how long they’d been trading.

“Four months.”

“And how’s business?”

A little shrug. “We have good days and bad days. It’s difficult, with town opening and closing.” As fortune cookie-sized summaries of what it’s like to be in hospitality in 2021 go, it took some beating. It’s tough being the small fish, indeed. I thanked him and went on my merry way, off home to watch England prove that sometimes it’s tough beating the small fish, too.

I really hope Smash N Grab do well. If it felt hit and miss, which it slightly did, the plus is that the core of their offering, the main thing they do, is pretty good. I liked my burger a lot, and I appreciated the care and thought that went into it. I’d definitely have one again, possibly their “Green Destiny” with garlic mayo and green chillies, which sounds rather marvellous. Their fries weren’t great, but that’s fixable, and although I had mixed feelings about the cake shake (I’m getting that sensation of grubbiness again just thinking about it) you can have a very nice meal there without one, if the idea doesn’t float your boat. 

They definitely add something to Reading’s food scene, especially in East Reading, and although you probably won’t feel like eating outside in the dead of winter they’re on delivery apps as well. I’m very glad I went there instead of Wendy’s: it feels like a better accolade for Reading that it has the first ever Smash N Grab, that the chap who owns it wanted to open here, than that we have the country’s first Wendy’s. It was the right thing to do this week – and every week, for that matter – to go to Smash N Grab instead of Wendy’s.

Looking back at this review I see I’ve done the classic feedback trick of talking about the things I enjoyed, the shake and the burger, either side of describing the chips. There’s a term for that: my other half, memorably, calls it the “shit sandwich”. It may well be a shit sandwich, I agree. But gladly, Smash N Grab’s burger is anything but.

Smash N Grab – 7.0
124 London Road, Reading, RG1 5AY
0118 9666743

https://www.smashngrab.co.uk
Delivery available: Via JustEat and Deliveroo

Restaurant review: Crispy Dosa

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit inside?” said the waitress, smiling as she handed us the menu. Like all of the service at Crispy Dosa it was friendly, kind and welcoming: the restaurant was filling up with happy families, all Indian as far as I could see, and she probably didn’t understand why Zoë and I had chosen to sit at a table outside on plastic chairs, opposite the Penta Hotel or in the wind tunnel of Thorn Street.

In other circumstances, I might have acquiesced. The inside of Crispy Dosa, from my cursory glance, looked like a nice space. It had plenty of banquetted booths (I’m not sure whether they were leather or leatherette: leatheresque, perhaps?) each one with a little patch sewn into it saying “CRISPY DOSA ❤️ YOU”. And the restaurant was, for a week night, buzzing: I saw a regular flow of people in and out, customers leaving, some carrying bags to take home and, of course, a steady in and out of delivery drivers.

By contrast, Crispy Dosa’s outside space is slightly unfortunate. On one of the hottest days of the year so far none of the tables caught the sun, and they felt a little like a consequence of necessity: they are, after all, how Crispy Dosa managed to trade for the first few weeks they were open, while they waited for indoor hospitality to be allowed again.

But I am not yet at the stage where I’m ready to eat and drink indoors and, with the exception of a post-vaccination celebratory brunch at Fidget & Bob last month, this was the first time I’d had an al fresco meal this year. So to say those plastic tables and chairs were a welcome sight would be quite an understatement; the waitress probably didn’t understand why we were so excited. So we sat outside, at the very beginning of West Reading, where things begin to get a little bit more lively – I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy people-watching – and for the first time in a long time I held a physical menu in my hand and decided what to order.

I picked Crispy Dosa for my first restaurant review in over a year for a few reasons. One is that I knew they had outside space. Another is that I had a feeling dosas wouldn’t travel well if I’d ordered them as a takeaway dish. But most significantly, on the day I visited them they were Reading’s newest restaurant, having opened at the end of April. They have two other branches, in Hounslow and Greenford, and they opened here with relatively little fanfare – mainly because they missed out on all the publicity that comes with opening over forty different sock puppet restaurants on delivery apps. What can I say? I like an underdog.

Reading has had a bit of a love affair with South Indian food over the last twelve years. First Chennai Dosa opened on Whitley Street in 2009, and proved so popular that people were queuing to get in (they didn’t take cash, which at the time was noteworthy: these days you’d steer clear unless a restaurant accepted cards). Then Chennai Dosa moved to the old Casa site, just over from Reading Library, and Cafe Madras took their place on Whitley Street.

There have been more musical chairs in recent times. Chennai Dosa became “Chennai Dosa Artisanz”, a transformation which mostly seemed to mean that they added a couple of quid to every dish on the menu, and then it closed, leaving that site vacant for nearly three years until Madras Flavours opened there this year, also offering southern Indian food. And Cafe Madras closed too, to be replaced by Vel, another southern Indian restaurant. So the market is clearly there, and the question is whether it’s big enough to support a third restaurant (and, I suppose, whether Crispy Dosa is the third restaurant for the job).

Crispy Dosa is entirely vegetarian, and its menu is a mixture of South Indian dishes (specifically dosa and uthappam, its thicker sibling) and Indo-Chinese dishes you’d find on the menu somewhere like Bhel Puri House. There’s also a selection of curries and noodle dishes, if you want something more conventional. But the centre of the menu is definitely the dosa options which span three sections, “Dosa Corner”, “Special Dosa” and “Chef Recommended Dosa”. I’m not sure what adjective to use out of reasonable, affordable and cheap, but nearly all the dishes cost less than nine pounds and many are significantly less expensive. We ordered a few starters to share, and a main course each, and sat back and waited.

But first, I got to reacquaint myself with mango lassi. I love this drink, and I hadn’t had one in a long time; it’s not something you really add to a JustEat basket. Crispy Dosa’s version was lovely, a bright orange slurp of tropical sweetness, and it took a reassuringly long time to arrive. The wait staff apologised for the delay, something they repeatedly did and didn’t need to: they also came out to tell us our starters were on the way, when there wasn’t any rush.

Our starters were taken from different sections of the menu, a hodgepodge designed to sample a wider range of dishes. The first, the Madras crispy masala potato slice, was the most disappointing. I’ve been spoiled by Bhel Puri House’s bhajia, slices of potato in a crispy batter, beautifully spiced and served with a bright carrot chutney. This dish, by contrast, felt like a bare minimum way to live up to the description on the menu.

It really was just sliced potatoes which had indeed been fried (although not all of them were enormously crispy) with some spice powder dusted on top. They were meant to come with sriracha, but instead we got what tasted suspiciously like ketchup. I guess if you’re South Indian both of those sauces are equally inauthentic, but I expected something a little more than sliced potatoes and tomato sauce. It looks quite nice in the picture, mind you.

The gobi 65 was better. You got a fairly generous helping of small florets of cauliflower, cooked but still with a little nutty firmness, in a spiced batter, along with some decorative fanned-out slices of red onion (Zoë thought they really added something, although she’d happily eat raw red onion for fun: I gave them a miss). But these were pretty good, and more interesting than the sliced potato. Again, I was baffled that it came with ketchup – had they given this to us because they thought it was the kind of thing we’d enjoy, or was it standard issue? It might have benefited from something to dip it in – a whole dish of it got a bit dry – but Heinz? Really?

This was even more of a no-no where my dining companion was concerned. She dislikes almost anything with vinegar in it – I always get a black look when I open a jar of pickles – and has a visceral loathing of tomato ketchup which took me some time to fully grasp. Early in our courtship, down the pub with friends, I placed a bottle of ketchup in front of her on the table and watched in shock as instantly, in a single unthinking reflex action, she picked it up and chucked over her shoulder, clean into the river (if it had been any other establishment they might have barred us, but to my shame we were in the Back Of Beyond: I’m sure they’ve seen worse). I’m allowed ketchup with fish and chips, but I have to take the plate through to the kitchen and rinse it the moment I’m finished: she claims she can smell ketchup at great distances.

Fortunately our third starter came with an assortment of chutneys, which were also handy for starters one and two. Medhu vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from urad dal that are often eaten as breakfast or a snack in South India: I’d never had them before, but enjoyed them a great deal. You got a couple for just over three pounds – they looked a little lonesome on that big steel tray – and they had a nice texture, crispy on the outside, doughy without being too heavy. I expected a little more in terms of spicing and curry leaves, but as a vehicle for the chutneys and sambar I thought they worked nicely.

“It’s the chutney I judge these places by” a friend of mine had said to me earlier in the week. “We haven’t found any good ones in the UK so far.” Although I quite enjoyed Crispy Dosa’s chutneys I suspected they might have left her underwhelmed. The coriander chutney was probably the best of the lot but it didn’t quite have the zing I’d have liked. The coconut one was pleasant, and the sambar, although thin, had a pleasing heat to it. But the red chutney felt a little lacking in oomph, and I didn’t make great inroads into that.

Our main courses arrived while we were tackling the tail end of our starters. I’d forgotten just how huge a dosa looks when it’s plonked in front of you – you need the superwide lens on an iPhone to fit it all in – and how attractive a dish it is. I’d gone for the ghee podi masala dosa, and it was burnished on the outside and glossy with ghee inside, sprinkled with a dry powder made from lentils which gave it a savoury kick (the closest thing I can compare it to – let’s insult two cultures at once, shall we? – was the shrapnel at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts).

It was terrific finger food, and probably worked better with the chutneys and sambar than the medhu vada had. Only the potato masala let the side down – for me it was too creamy and bland with a strange note of something like condensed milk, and didn’t have enough in the way of spice. I finished my meal feeling full, so I didn’t lose too much sleep over leaving some of it, but portions at Crispy Dosa are so generous that I probably could have skipped the masala completely. Maybe I’ll branch out next time.

Another good candidate for next time was Zoë’s choice, from the “Chef Recommended Dosa” section, otherwise known as the “What Other Things On The Menu Could We Stuff Into A Dosa?” section. I suspect this bit of the menu would give purists conniptions – Szechuan noodles in a dosa doesn’t sound anything but weird – but Zoë’s paneer Manchurian dosa was very good indeed and worked well as a dish. It came rolled and cut into segments, much more like a traditional sandwich, and the paneer in it was firm, tangy and pretty tasty stuff. I wasn’t entirely convinced this dish needed the chutneys, as it managed perfectly well in its own right, a thoroughly enjoyable dish.

“It reminds me of a quesadilla, and I fucking love a quesadilla” said Zoë, handily proving that I wasn’t the only person not averse to a spot of cultural appropriation: arguably the restaurant started it by giving us tomato ketchup, anyway.

If we had had a better idea of portion size, and maybe paced ourselves a little better, we might have saved room for dessert. I have a soft spot for kulfi, it was the perfect evening for it and Crispy Dosa does a pistachio kulfi that I imagine I’d have enjoyed. Another one to notch up for next time, I think. We were probably there about an hour in total – ever so slightly on the brisk side, but understandable for the kind of restaurant Crispy Dosa is – during which time the Oxford Road gradually got louder, crazier and more watchable.

“It’s nice to have another spot that’s perfect for a quick meal before heading to the Nag’s” said Zoë. “This place and ThaiGrr! will come in handy for that.”

“Good point. That’s been a gap in the market since Tuscany and the Jolly Fryer closed down.”

“I know” she smiled. “You should mention that in your review.”

Our dinner for two – three starters, two mango lassis and two dosas – came to just over thirty-five pounds, not including tip. That’s not bad value, and you could easily spend less and come away full. Service was excellent throughout, and I did find myself rooting for them despite the occasional misstep. We were the only table outside, but they worked very hard to make us feel like we hadn’t been forgotten. It’s been such a difficult year for restaurants, and Crispy Dosa has hardly opened at an auspicious time, but it felt like there was a decency and integrity to what they did.

Reviewing restaurants again means putting ratings at the bottom, which means the usual hoo-ha about people thinking my reviews are too harsh, or too generous, or that the mark is too low or too high to match the words. I’m not sure I’ve missed that; the current feedback seems to be that I’m too harsh, though no doubt it will swing around before too long. But I liked Crispy Dosa, perhaps more than I enjoyed the sum total of the dishes. Some were good, some were middling but all were reasonably priced enough that you can explore, make mistakes, revisit.

Perhaps my spectacles are a little rose-tinted by just how wonderful it was to sit outside a restaurant again. But I don’t think so: I think Crispy Dosa is a decent, solid restaurant which adds something to Reading, especially if you live on the west side of town, or especially if you’re vegetarian. I’m glad it’s decided to open here, and that paneer Manchurian has my name on it at some point in the not too distant future. It’s no longer the latest restaurant to open in Reading – that honour passed this week to some burger place on Friar Street – so it will just have to settle for being the latest restaurant I’ve reviewed. Small consolation, I know, but them’s the breaks.

Crispy Dosa – 7.0
60 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7LT
0118 3273670

https://www.crispydosarestaurant.co.uk
Delivery via: Direct through the restaurant, JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats

Q&A: Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s

Naomi Lowe set up Nibsy’s, Reading’s first dedicated gluten-free café, in Cross Street in 2014, following a career in investment management. In the last five years the café has gone from strength to strength and remains Reading’s only venue specifically catering to this sector of the market. Nibsy’s won the Reading Retail Award for Best Café in 2017. Naomi is currently writing her first book of recipes. She lives with her husband and two children off the Oxford Road.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Losing my “rhythm” and not being able to see my mum.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between corporate life and running a café?
Corporate life was easy. Running a coffee shop takes a lot more out of me (but gives back, too). I could go on about the differences and sacrifices I’ve had to make, but the reward and the team, the people and the sense of achievement are worth the effort.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The Oxford Road – it feels like home. And I like that Reading is big enough to feel anonymous but small enough to have a sense of community.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I feel like I should say L’Ortolan as it was the most expensive and memorable meal (it was a birthday present). But the happy memories are of when I used to grab a bag of chips from Smarts fish and chip shop in Henley and sit by the river with my boyfriend, now husband. They were consistently the best chips I’ve ever eaten. I don’t think they are run by the same people anymore.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I’ve been calling a regular customer Martin for five years. He recently started following our Instagram page and it turns out his name is Tom. I’ll put that right when we re-open.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Eating digestive biscuits in bed, which my mum would bring me as a late night snack when I was a toddler.

How do you relax?
With a smoke and glass of wine, in the garden.

You opened Nibsy’s six years ago. How much do you think the food scene has changed for the gluten intolerant since then?
Massively changed for the better – it’s rare to go out and not have a few decent options. 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Probably Pho. There’s one dish that I always have –  the vermicelli noodles with mushroom and tofu. I don’t eat out very often, and am a sucker for sticking to what I like. Plus, I am comfortable eating there on my own: as I get older, “me time” is like gold.

What is your favourite word?
Tricky, but the first two words that come to mind are “bobble” and “yes”. Sorry, these are pretty random! But I’ll explain: “bobble” because it sounds like a happy word. And “yes” because it was the first word I ever said, and is generally a positive word.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I suppose I’d have to say E.T. because it’s the film I’ve watched more than any other. Although my seven year old is watching Ratatouille on repeat at the moment and I love it: the story, the music, and the message “anyone can cook”. That’s nice to hear while I’m writing the recipe book. Series wise, the one I have watched twice is Breaking Bad: nothing else has come close.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food and drink?
John Richardson, because of the knowledge he shares in his help books for coffee shop and café owners, and Gordon Ramsay because I love Kitchen Nightmares.

Where is your happy place?
At my mum’s little place in north-west London or my dad’s, in the south of France in a sleepy village called Auzas. Nothing happens there, the church bell rings every hour – even through the night – but the calm and fresh air is like nothing else. And he makes a great curry and plays his old vinyl.

Normally I ask people what their favourite crisps are. What’s your favourite gluten-free snack?
No, crisps ARE my go-to snack. My favourite brand is the special large bag of salt and vinegar ones that the Co-op do – I love these because they are so salty and vinegary. Otherwise, a specifically gluten-free snack would be the granola bars that we make and sell at the coffee shop.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
A temp job in my early twenties, in a virtually windowless building just off Oxford Street. I answered calls and filled in job sheets for engineers to fix faulty toilets and equipment. I was mostly on my own, which was the worst part. I only stuck at it a week or two.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I wanted to ask my husband for help on this one. He said “screaming at your husband.”

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Late night scoops of crunchy peanut butter before bed.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Having racked my brain, there’s only one actress that springs to mind – Julia Stiles.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m distantly related to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Describe yourself in three words.
Warm, pragmatic, thinker.

Taco Bell

I know many people scroll to the bottom of my reviews to check the rating and the summary, the tl;dr equivalent of slogging all the way through my deathless prose. I know, too, that some people think my reviews are too long; God knows how many people make it to the end of the middle section where I (finally) get round to telling you what the food tastes like.

Well, this will confuse plenty of those people – let’s start at the end for once. Taco Bell is bloody awful. Truly. Don’t eat there. I can’t think of a single good reason for visiting Taco Bell unless you’ve never been to one before and are genuinely curious about what it’s like. That was me before I did this review, so I tell you what: I’ll satisfy your curiosity and then you can save your money, your calories and your dignity and have a better meal somewhere else. Sound all right to you?

Although I hadn’t been before, both my two dining companions for this visit had eaten at Taco Bell. Dr. Quaff (author of the excellent Quaffable Reading: other pub blogs are available, but they’re not as good) and Graeme had both been while on trips to the States, something I didn’t know until we queued up.

“Did you like it when you had it over there?” I asked.

“No, it was terrible” said Dr. Quaff, and Graeme concurred. Were they being public-spirited or suckers for punishment in choosing to accompany me?

I genuinely was curious, though. I’m not averse to fast food or junk food if done well, and one thing that’s fairly indisputable is that American cuisine does specialise in both those things. And Taco Bell opening in Reading was noteworthy: there aren’t that many of them in the U.K. yet, and there’d been a certain amount of noise in what passes for our local media these days.

So I really did turn up with no axe to grind, which means that all of you can say I told you so in the comments: it is one of life’s great pleasures, after all. Also, I know many of you – lurkers, fans and haters alike – particularly enjoy reading about me having an appalling meal. If that’s you, this one should give you a special thrill.

Taco Bell is along the side of the Broad Street Mall, Reading’s second favourite mall (a title it has achieved through all but two of the malls in Reading closing). Inside it looked like a slightly lower-rent McDonalds, with some tables and chairs and a bar with uncomfortable stools to perch on (fun fact: the following day I was nervous about the prospect of a very different kind of uncomfortable stool).

There are a couple of those big terminals where you can key in your order, like at McDonalds or KFC: on our visit only one was working, which makes them more like the spectacularly useless ticket machines in Reading Station. Failing that you go up to the counter and try and find something on the menu you can feel enthusiastic about. The dishes on offer are broadly similar to the U.S. menu, so it’s a choice of tacos, burritos and quesadillas. We tried to cover all angles, so I had the grilled chicken burrito, Graeme ordered a quesadilla and Dr. Quaff had the fajita burrito. Dr. Quaff also got a bonus taco because he’d signed up for something online. This is typical of him, a man who has one of those whizzy cameras attached to his doorbell so he can watch people delivering pizza to his kids while he’s down the pub.

He’s also a man, for that matter, who spent some time in the pub afterwards explaining how he’d used an API from Reading Buses to measure the average lateness of the number 22 bus. It’s three and a half minutes, in case you’re interested – and I know that because I double checked with Dr. Quaff in the course of writing this review and he told me, although not before saying “let me just fire up my data science workbench”. Dr. Quaff is the kind of man who says “let me fire up my data science workbench”. Graeme, on the other hand, is the kind of man who says “what’s an API?”

I think you can tell, from these diversions, that my companions were both more interesting and palatable than the food. Let’s get this bit out of the way. My burrito was flat with brown marks from the grill which looked more like stains, as if it had been sat on by somebody who hadn’t wiped properly. Inside was a mush of tasteless pap – you could make out the constituent parts by sight and by texture, but not by anything else. Apparently it had a blend of three cheeses, although how they found three cheeses that all tasted of nothing I’ll never know. “There’s just enough cheese that it’s stretchy”, said Dr. Quaff, “but that’s it.”

The chicken was in regularly shaped pieces that made me think it was precooked and came out of a catering pack. It had parallel dark lines on it as if to give the impression of chargrilling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been added with a Sharpie. When I placed my order I was told that they didn’t have regular grilled chicken, just Mexican chicken. “It’s more spicy”, the lady told me: God only knows how bland the normal chicken would be.

There was rice, too. At least it looked like rice.

“It reminds me of the microwave rice you get” said Dr. Quaff.

“What, like Uncle Ben?” I said.

“I was thinking Tilda, but same thing” he said kindly: I forgot for a second that he lives in Caversham Heights.

Dr. Quaff’s fajita burrito was equally cruddy but with flavourless peppers instead of flavourless beans. “It doesn’t look like the picture, does it?” he said, showing a masterful flair for understatement. His taco with minced beef looked, if anything, less appealing than the burrito. I would say my photo below does it justice, aesthetically speaking. “It’s okay”, he said, but it’s sort of been piped in.” Piped in, like Muzak. Or sewage.

Hard to believe, but we were the ones who got off lightly. Graeme’s quesadilla was a greasy, sweaty thing in a body bag with a mingy smear of that not-very-Mexican chicken and more of the triple threat cheese. He felt queasy eating it, queasy walking to the pub afterwards, queasy in the pub and, as he later told us, queasy the next day. “Goodness that food was rough” he said. “Thanks for taking one for the team” replied Dr. Quaff, magnanimous as ever.

All the orders come with Mexican fries which were dusted with red seasoning that tasted almost pleasant. The fries, though, were hot and stale to begin with and cold and stale soon after. Dr. Quaff ended up trying to suck the seasoning off the fries and said it tasted like tomato flavoured Cup-A-Soup before you add the hot water, but the whole spectacle was a little too Leslie Grantham webcam, so we had to ask him to stop.

The only way to make the food taste of anything was to use the sachets of sauce available. They came in Mild, Hot and Fire which, translated, mean Bland, Mild and Equally Mild But In A Slightly Different Way. Somewhere on the packaging it also says “You’ve Got This” – I imagine if you eat there a lot they’re probably referring to scurvy. On the plus side, you get bottomless cherry flavoured Pepsi Max, but you could just buy a bottle of the stuff and save yourself roughly four pounds. Our meals came to a total of just over sixteen pounds – cheap, but not good value. Cheap and nasty is closer to the truth.

We beetled off to the Nag’s Head after that where we drank – mostly to forget – and Dr. Quaff bought some Scampi Fries and Mini Cheddars. Both were tastier, and infinitely better value, than the meal we had just endured. Still, at least we had survived – and if it had been an iota worse we might have wound up getting matching tattoos. When I got home from the pub, around midnight, my other half was waiting up for me.

“So is it worse than Mission Burrito?” she said.

“Yes. It’s nowhere near as good as Mission Burrito. Or McDonalds. Or KFC. Or pretty much everywhere.”

You know how this review ends, because I told you at the beginning. But the other thing I got from visiting Taco Bell was a realisation: as long as people still queue round the block to get into Taco Bell in the weeks after it opens, my work here isn’t done. Not that any of those people read my blog, of course, but you’ve got to have faith. And, despite the fact that it was a meal that stayed with me in all the wrong ways, I still don’t regret visiting Taco Bell at all. Sometimes, counterintuitively, you need to go to places like this, just to understand how lucky we really are.

Taco Bell – 3.9
207 Broad Street Mall, RG1 7QH
0118 9597213

https://locations.tacobell.co.uk/reading/207-broad-street-mall.html

Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my esteemed colleague Quaffable Reading. After he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)