Takeaway review: Tortilla

When it comes to deliveries, all dishes may be equal but some dishes are more equal than others. I got to thinking about this after last week’s disappointing meal at Dhaulagiri Kitchen, when somebody replied on Twitter and said “I guess moving to takeaway has been tough for them”. I thought that was a curious take, because all of the problems with that meal had been in the kitchen, not on the journey from the kitchen to my house: everything was packed just fine, and arrived hot enough, it just didn’t taste that special. 

It is true, though, that some dishes and cuisines lend themselves better to delivery than others. You’re on a hiding to nothing with pizza from the minute it leaves the oven, for example. And the more components you have to dish up separately, the more likely you’ll have a lukewarm plate at the end of it. With dishes where everything comes in one pot, you have a better chance that the whole thing will stay hot. This is why Kokoro is always such a good bet for delivery, and why restaurants like Zizzi and Pizza Express have set up separate brands on Deliveroo selling macaroni cheese or other pasta dishes in a tub. 

It also explains the relative popularity of sandwiches – burgers, wraps and burritos – on delivery apps, and that in turn explains why I decided to give Tortilla a try this week. Burrito restaurant Tortilla is one of those smaller chains where the blurb on the website makes it sound like a small indie business (“we’re not part of a multi-franchise nor some big soulless restaurant group”) but my cursory research suggested a slightly different picture. 

They had nearly forty branches, and had benefited from financial backing from the private equity group that controlled Yo! Sushi and from Santander – because if there’s one thing big business still seems to love, it’s the casual dining sector. Tortilla’s chairman used to run Pizza Express and had a proud track record of joining or founding hospitality businesses and then selling them off for pots of cash – more John Sykes than Jamie Oliver. So Tortilla maybe wasn’t a Taco Bell, but it certainly wasn’t a Mission Burrito either.

Tortilla was first announced as coming to Reading last February, although for obvious reasons it took a fair old while to open, not throwing its doors open until the end of October. It made the news last year, because it had to overcome objections from a neighbouring business, the dentist Reading Smiles, who were concerned about them having an alcohol licence, and about the risk of smells drifting into the dental practice. Tortilla’s response was that there was no risk of that, as almost no cooking actually took place on the premises – their beef and pork are “braised off-site”, which also enables them to open in smaller premises, like the Reading branch, without the need for extraction. 

It’s funny: this sort of thing, cooking dishes in a central kitchen, goes on throughout chain restaurants and I’m sure we’ve all eaten those kinds of meals without necessarily being aware of it. But I had to work hard not to let this prejudice me against Tortilla. After all, I had a fantastic meal when I ordered a kilo of pre-cooked rib meat from The Rib Man and heated it up on my hob at home: potentially, surely this was no different? 

And Tortilla seemed to be doing a tidy trade – every time I’d walked past the restaurant since lockdown relaxed in April the tables outside had people at them, taking part in our new national sport of gamely pretending the weather wasn’t shite. I couldn’t quite make up their mind about them on paper, so it was time to place an order with them and try to make up my mind about them in reality.

Tortilla is on all three delivery apps, although in typical fashion I only realised that once I had placed my order with Deliveroo. The menu is identical across all of them, and it largely revolves around burritos, naked burritos – that’s the contents of a burrito in a bowl, in case you have a thing against tortillas – and a few taco options. They don’t sell quesadillas or nachos for delivery, although they will sell you a DIY kit if you want to make them at home: I can’t imagine these are that popular, but life is full of surprises.

The process for ordering a burrito is remarkably like going down the line in Mission Burrito, so you have various tick boxes to pick which rice, beans, salsa and so on you want. We ordered on a Sunday evening, and they had run out of their coriander and lime rice and their guacamole, which slightly limited the options. Guacamole, incidentally, is one of the only things Tortilla makes on the premises, so it’s a particular shame they had run out. (Is it as bad as a pub running out of chips? Answers on a postcard.)

Tortilla offers the traditional fillings – carnitas, barbacoa beef and grilled chicken – along with grilled vegetables. The latter costs the same as a chicken burrito, which feels cheeky. They also serve a“vegan chilli no carne” – which has tempeh in it, although you have to go to Tortilla’s website to find that out. We ordered a couple of burritos and some tacos to share – I might have tried the tortilla chips too if they’d had any guacamole to go with them – and our meal came to just shy of thirty pounds, not including the rider tip. Tortilla’s burritos come in medium and large, with the large costing about the same as the one size offered by Mission Burrito.

Deliveries from the town centre always seem quicker and more reliable, and often come on a bike rather than in a car. This was no exception, and everything was pretty brisk: we ordered at twenty past seven, the rider was en route twenty minutes later and he took four minutes to reach our front door. When he did, he cheerfully told us that he was carrying two orders from Tortilla and so we’d have to give him our order number – that struck me as a little strange, but it hardly held things up. I wonder, if I’d been his second delivery, if I’d have been quite as happy.

Anyway, everything was hot and it was all present and correct. A number had been scrawled on one of the foil-packed burritos with a Sharpie, nothing on the other. It’s only after the meal, looking at the ticket in the bag, that I realised he had written numbers against each burrito so we could work out which was which. P for pork and B for beef might have been simpler.

This is where I also have to make a sad confession. Partly to work out which burrito was which and partly to make this review more photographically interesting, I cut my burrito in half, artfully arranged it on a plate so you could see the filling, placed it under a spotlight in the kitchen and took a picture of it. Or at least I thought I did, but looking at my camera roll it simply isn’t there. This puts a greater emphasis on my descriptive powers than any of us would like, and makes this review even less visually interesting than normal: I can only apologise. I asked for advice on Twitter, but it ranged from the impractical (courtroom style drawing please) to the sadistic (another thousand words, presumably?). I’ll spare you either option.

On to the burrito then. Mine was pulled beef with black beans, tomato rice and all the trimmings – cheese, sour cream, salsa verde, jalapeños and pickled red onions. Looking at all that, you’d have thought the biggest risk would be the flavours clashing, or being too much, but in reality the struggle was to get it to taste of anything. Really, it was almost symphonically bland. It was well packed – almost as if done by a machine, the meat firmly in the centre, so different to the haphazard arrangement of a Mission burrito – but nothing tasted of very much. 

The beef had the texture but couldn’t back it up with the taste. The red onions were still crunchy and felt like they’d had only a passing acquaintance with vinegar. If there were any jalapeños in it, they’d been picked for their inoffensiveness. The list goes on: the tomato rice had a real feeling of Bachelor’s about it, and if the salsa verde, cheese and sour cream were even in there (and having eaten it, I’m not sure they were) they added even less to proceedings than Dido Harding. Or Dido herself, for that matter. When the best case scenario is that your meal is boring because they got your order wrong, and the worst case scenario is that it’s plain boring, matters are problematic.

The carnitas burrito was a subtly different shade of meh, but meh nonetheless. I actually liked the pork more – it was saltier and just more interesting – but it had its work cut out shining in a sea of mediocrity. When I have a burrito from Mission it’s a glorious mess – it drips, it’s tricky to tackle, it’s always a challenge, but it tastes of something. You get the highs and the lows. This, by contrast, was tidy and dull, a burrito on Prozac, all the edges neatly knocked off until you barely felt anything. Maybe that was the intention, and maybe the aim is to take customers away from Taco Bell: Tortilla is better than Taco Bell, but so’s eating corrugated cardboard topped with spam.

Only the tacos showed a hint of something better. Tortilla’s chicken is grilled rather than pulled, in little pieces – I actually quite enjoyed this, although it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But the real winner here was the salsa roja – hot and punchy and adding a dimension of flavour that had been lacking everywhere else. But even the tacos, though they were better than the burritos, weren’t better than their peers. 

The portion size was still a little underwhelming, especially when you compare it to the Lyndhurst’s outstanding chicken tinga tacos: there, you get four tacos for nine pounds, all so piled high with chicken that you can’t physically close them, and there is always plenty of guacamole. At Tortilla you get three barely-filled tacos for seven pounds fifty – I got the odd one, but mostly because Zoë had no interest in fighting me for it.

When I look at Tortilla’s footprint, I can see that it might do well in many of the locations where they’ve opened up. If it didn’t exist, it might be necessary to invent it. But this, I’m very proud to say, is Reading, and we do things differently here. We’re not like some of the identikit malls Tortilla has opened in, or the likes of Guildford; if they’d done their homework, they might have realised that Reading, of all places, doesn’t need a Tortilla. 

And although there were a couple of things at Tortilla I didn’t mind – the grilled chicken, the salsa roja, the fact that it isn’t Taco Bell – the fact remains that it will never be close to the best option for Reading residents. A few weeks ago I went to Blue Collar and tried pork and charred pineapple tacos from their new vendor El Contador, and they were miles better than anything I had from Tortilla. 

Likewise, if tacos are your thing, be they carnitas or jackfruit, you really do need to make a beeline for the Lyndhurst when they reopen. If you’re a burrito fan I think that Mission, in terms of quality, value and integrity, is streets ahead of Tortilla; writing this review has quite made me crave a Mission Burrito to remember how it’s done. And if you’re at home, and you want to order something delicious that will stay hot, cost around a tenner and make its way to your door in next to no time, a little bucket of Kokoro’s sweet chilli chicken hits the spot every time. 

I do feel a little sad for Tortilla: it’s not exactly as if they’ve done anything wrong, but they’re not quite good enough. It’s not them, you see. It’s us.

Tortilla
4-6 Broad Street, Reading, RG1 2BH
https://www.tortilla.co.uk/locations/reading/

Order via: JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats

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

The Edible Reading Pho Competition: the results!

When I announced the first ever ER competition a few weeks back I couldn’t have anticipated the level of response – loads of you took part, sending me miniature essays about your favourite Reading food experiences.

And there was a real range – meals with family, meals with friends, dates and solo experiences (at least one after a trip to the pub, but more of that later). Some people mourned restaurants no longer with us, some talked about the power restaurants can have to win over reluctant parents. But the thing that struck me most was that many of you talked about how you had found your “place” after moving to Reading – whether that’s somewhere to eat as a vegetarian, eat with your family or find a little taste of back home. Food, friends, family and community: all so important, and reading the entries I felt very proud – of Reading and of all the people who read ER.

I’m really relieved that I didn’t have the difficult job of judging this competition and I don’t envy Claire Slobodian, editor of Explore Reading, who kindly sifted through all the entries (without Strictly paddles, but maybe next time). I was determined not to let Claire off the hook though, so before I announce the winners I also asked Claire to give me 200 words on her favourite Reading food experience. Here it is:

My favourite Reading food experience occurred only a short while after I moved back to town. My visiting brother was convinced I was mad not to move to London. Determined to persuade him, and myself, otherwise, we spent the day at Inside Reading Prison, picked up beers at Grumpy Goat and drank at The Allied Arms. After, on the strength of an Edible Reading review, we wandered to The Horn. It was dark, there was football on, ordering at the bar became confusing. We were sceptical.

Then the chicken paella arrived. Steaming, squidgy, wet. Crunchy bits gleamed in the light. Chicken fell apart on the fork. I scraped at the bottom of the pan.

We ate in a reverential silence in the pub’s tiny, sun-dappled terrace. A grunting noise came from across the table. My brother shook his head: “This. Is. So. Good,” he said, “I should visit more.”

It was one of those days, and one of those dishes, that made me feel incredibly proud of Reading. And it’s where the bud of an idea for Explore Reading first popped into my head. I love that paella, but I also love I Love Paella for helping me find that.

Right then, on to the winners and the honourable mentions (try hard to imagine a really impressive drum roll at this point):

WINNER: Mya Lacarte, Aden Pearce

My favourite Reading food experience? That’s not easy, as I’ve had 98% of my meals in the last fifteen years there. Loads stick in the mind, but Mya wins out.

Mainly I remember laughing. A lot. It was the first time I kind of knew that the food was better than my palate could keep up with, and it ran rings round it. There’s where I realised something as mundane as a Scotch egg could be that tasty. I had pigeon breast that had more life than the bird could have seen when it still had its own wings. It was ridiculous.

It was our first anniversary and we’d never had that much care taken of us before. It may sound a bit pathetic but we really hadn’t. The staff were there when we needed them, gone when we didn’t. I wore a red leather jacket and they didn’t even laugh at me. It’s the little touches that made it.

I may have had better food, or better service, since. But that was the one for me. That’s when I realised what all the fuss was about food. It had been good before, but it was never this much fun…

Claire says: Each of these pieces shows some impressive writing and a real love of eating out in Reading. But for me, this entry picks up first prize because it beautifully captures the moment when your favourite dining experience can cause your whole world to turn.

This piece is full of joy: for eating out, for good food, for the power of those little touches. It spotlights everything I love about dining out and reminds me of my own first tentative dips into the food world. Afterwards you see things differently and you can’t wait to start putting your palate through its paces.

As well as all that, it succinctly remembers a sadly-departed Reading legend, Mya Lacarte. A very worthy winner.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Chennai Dosa, Charlotte Fergus

One night in May 2016 my partner and I invited our friends to try Chennai Dosa, our favourite restaurant in Reading. They had never tried dosa, so we decided to go for something fairly basic: the family dosa. After the waiters murmured amongst themselves that we were all crazy they agreed to cook it for us, and the 5 of us waited patiently for our meal to arrive. During this time a waiter brought over an extra table to add length for what was to come: a 2m long dosa stocked full of potato masala. With discerning looks from other customers (and some in complete awe) we proceeded to completely annihilate our meal, sharing and tearing with our hands and dipping into the fragrant chutneys accompanying the gargantuan dish. The crispy, ghee fried dosa was perfect, and the masala syncopated the meal with jazzy bursts of tomato spice. I remember feeling so happy to be with my friends, sharing a lovely meal and being content with our exciting lives full of love and adventure. The next day the real reason for my appetite emerged. I was carrying our baby Mabel, born 1st Jan 2017.

Claire says: I feel very warmly towards this entry, and not just because of its powerful closing line. The writer presents their food experience as a performance piece and the entry radiates with movement, atmosphere and excitement. I feel like a fly on the wall, watching the group tear into their dinner and, crucially, I want to go and tackle that family dosa with my friends.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Mr Cod, Matt Farrall

I had heard the fable of this strange spicy hybrid fish ‘n’ chip meal that would leave a memorable taste in the mouth and the burn of a Viking funeral in other parts, sometime before I first dare try it.

It must have been one in the morning one night when I stumbled into Mr Cod on Whitley Street absolutely famished after some half-marathon drinking.

I think it was £4.99 then and it came with a choice of cherry or apple pie or drink and a special dangerous looking pot of rude, red thick chilli sauce.

It looked like fairly normal fish ‘n’ chips in a beige polystyrene container although the fish did have a strange reddy/orange glowing hue.

The salty, spicy batter and tangy taste along with potent sweet thick chilli really was great after a drink with a nice portion of chips. It wasn’t like anything I had before and the fish was fine but hard to identify. All was well until the morning when my breath, head and stomach began to disagree. When you have a Mr Cod masala fish meal there is no return to normality – you won’t forget it.

Claire says: Another entry on a distinctly Reading restaurant, but this time of a very different kind. The writing is very funny; I chuckled out loud more than once. I’m not quite sold that I should go and try the dish, but above all, this tale of the unforgettable nature of Mr Cod’s masala fish shows that food doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be utterly memorable. As someone who once had an almost spiritual encounter with a 50p bowl of Sichuan sesame noodles, I am in total agreement.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Mission Burrito, Victoria Keitel

“Do you really want the habanero salsa? It’s spicy.”

The lady assembling my food at Mission Burrito was hesitant. What she wasn’t aware of was that the salsa, as hot as it is for most British palates, doesn’t come close to the tear-inducing heat of the ones in San Francisco, home of the Mission neighbourhood that Mission Burrito emulates.

“Yes, please.”

A dab was applied.

“More, please.”

Wrapped in foil, the burrito was placed inside a plastic basket. A mandarina Jarritos and a side of tortilla crisps finished it off.

Mission Burrito operates as a quasi-embassy for this Californian. The décor is cheerful with photographs of established Mission taquerias alongside artwork inspired by the city’s public transport system: the Muni. The menu is presented in orange and black, the local Giants baseball team’s colours. These little touches, perhaps unnoticed by most, make the experience of eating homier.

As for the food, Mission Burrito produces some of the most authentic flavours of Californian Mexican food in the UK. The produce is fresh and includes necessities like tomatillos and a variety of chilies to get the correct profile. While being a chain, it reliably produces CalMex food at a reasonable price.

Claire says: Reading often gets sneered at for our many chain restaurants. This entry proves chains aren’t automatically a bad thing. Again, it shows good writing, with a great storytelling narrative which kept me hooked. Overall, I’m left cheered that even the humble production line process at Mission Burrito can trigger that soothing taste of home.

Congratulations to Aden, who wins a three course meal for four people at Pho (go on, wear your red leather jacket, I dare you) and thank you to everybody who took part in the competition. Fingers crossed it turns out to be the first of many. In the meantime, I’ll see you all back here on Friday for a brand new review. You might well be interested in this one: it’s definitely my favourite Reading food experience of the last few months.

Feature: Eating at the Reading Fringe

Last week I took part in a live Q&A on Twitter about the Reading Fringe. It’s an amazing Reading institution, now in its fifth year and bigger than ever with 72 shows running across 14 venues over 5 days. I was more than happy to support it by answering questions for an hour; obviously some people wanted answers to the burning questions of the day (my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, thanks for asking) but the best question I got asked was this – where should I eat before going to take in a show at the Fringe? It’s an excellent question, and I dashed off a few quick responses, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it might make a useful feature for those of you attending a cultural event in Reading for the rest of this week. So here goes!

Shows at the Penta Hotel, Smokin’ Billy’s, Public, The Butler or The Purple Turtle: Pepe Sale, Bhoj or Bluegrass BBQ

Many of these shows start at 7 or 7.30, so you need to find somewhere nearby that serves decent food and can feed you and have you out the door sharpish. Pepe Sale, as a restaurant right next to the Hexagon, has an impeccable pedigree of doing this so is well worth considering. It’s not the most attractive interior in the world but you probably won’t have the time to fully appreciate that, especially if you’re concentrating on the food. If you’re in a rush the pasta dishes are always a good bet (I’m a particular fan of the tagliolini with smoked salmon, saffron and cream).
Failing that, Bluegrass is another excellent option and has the additional benefit that you pay up front so it’s easy to scarper afterwards without having to flag someone down to settle the bill. When I first went it was all about pulled pork and brisket but the menu definitely has other interesting choices including the Southern fried chicken and most notably the slow cooked beef brisket chilli – watermelon slices and all – which has become my go-to dish there. Lastly, Bhoj is in its new home a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale and does some of Reading’s finest Indian food. Karahi lamb is my favourite choice here, although ordering from here prior to a packed performance might not be the most sociable thing you could do.
Oh, and don’t go to Smokin’ Billy’s to eat. You’d be better off grabbing a Pizza Express and eating it in the garden of the Allied Arms.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)
Bluegrass BBQ, RG1 2JR (review here)
Bhoj, 7 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)

Shows at Revolucion de Cuba, Milk, Waterstones or the Dome at Station Hill: Sapana Home, Shed, Kokoro or Nando’s

Sapana Home is still often my choice for a quick town centre meal and it’s a great place for pre-theatre because if you get there bang on six o’clock you’re likely to eat brilliantly and still make your show. I’ve written about the place so many times that I’m in danger of getting repetitive, but really, have any of the pan fried chicken momo, the samosa chaat, the chicken fry and the chow mein and you’ll have an absolutely fantastic meal. Sapana was my restaurant of the year last year and is still a favourite of mine. Surprisingly good for kids, too: my friend’s 10 year old son is a massive fan of the momo and can manage all 10 in a single sitting. Attaboy.
Some of the shows at the Dome are mid-afternoon and for those Shed and Kokoro offer good lunch options. Shed is great for kids, if you’re going to one of the kids’ shows there, and does a great array of sandwiches and salads (and the Top One – chorizo and cheese and jalapeno – remains one of the best sandwiches you can eat in the ‘Ding). Kokoro is newer, an offshoot of a small chain, and goes fantastic tubs of crispy chilli chicken or spicy thigh meat curries with rice or noodles or a range of sushi. Only a few tables, but again perfect for a quick meal where you rush in and out.

You can judge all you like, but I also have a soft spot for the Nando’s on Friar Street. Butterflied chicken breast, medium, with spicy rice and macho peas (or corn on the cob if you absolutely must) and garlic piri-piri on the side. Have a spot of sangria while you’re at it, because I always find it makes me far more artistically receptive: after a whole jug I’ve even been known to enjoy an episode of Sherlock.

Oh, and don’t go to Cosmo. Duck in a Yorkshire pudding is all well and good, but your digestive system will pay a terrible price the next day.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1TG (awarded Restaurant Of The Year here)
Shed, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT (review here)
Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
Nando’s, 30-31 Friar Street, RG1 1DX

Shows at the Oracle: Franco Manca or Mission Burrito

The Oracle is not my favourite place to eat, and there’s only one show here (live music at 12 and 3 from Lisa Zimmerman who has the tough gig of interesting Oracle shoppers in German opera with a pop twist: good luck with that, Lisa) but even here you can have a decent quick bite to eat. If you’re keeping it old school you could do a lot worse than a burrito from Mission with black beans, shredded slow-cooked beef, salad, guacamole and smoky chipotle sauce. But if you want to try one of the newcomers, Franco Manca does very good sourdough pizzas with splendid crusts that are cooked quickly in the blisteringly hot oven. Try and keep enough time back for the rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt, you won’t regret it.
Franco Manca, The Oracle, RG1 2AT
Mission Burrito, The Oracle, RG1 2AG (review here)

Shows at South Street, The Rising Sun and Olympia Ballrooms: Bakery House or the Lyndhurst

The easiest choices of all, these: round this part of town Bakery House is almost the only show in town. My last meal there was a little disappointing but it’s the only bad meal I’ve ever had there and I still have faith in them to deliver gorgeous Lebanese food quickly in a nice unpretentious setting. If you’re in a hurry for a show you might be better off ordering plenty of small dishes to share in which case the rich glossy houmous topped with pieces of roasted lamb, the amazing falafel, the little succulent maqaneq sausages and the halloumi stuffed pitta bread are all worth a go. And if you have a little bit longer I only have three beautiful words to say to you: boneless baby chicken.

I reviewed the Lyndhurst recently and it’s the perfect spot for a show in that area, especially if you’re watching something at South Street. The menu changes too regularly for me to be able to make too many recommendations but you can’t go far wrong and at the very least you should consider the pink pickled eggs (the distinctive colour coming from beetroot) with a hint of star anise, the Scotch egg or the dead good fish and chips.

Bakery House, 82 London St, RG1 4SJ (review here)
The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Rd, RG1 4DG (review here)

Anyway, I hope this is useful and that you seriously consider taking in a show over the next week or so, whether it’s stand-up, gig theatre, experimental theatre, music, chap-hop or (because Britain’s Got Talent suggests at least some people like this sort of thing) dance. The Fringe’s website is here, and tickets can still be bought in advance for the majority of the shows. Maybe I’ll see you at something: I fancy going to watch All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and I might go get squiffy at the launch party tomorrow night. I’ll be the one in the Mexican wrestling mask.

Round-up: February and March

Another bumper couple of months here at Edible Reading, so it seems like a good point to stop, take a breather and review what you may have missed, along with the latest selection of restaurant news. Are you sitting comfortably? Got a nice cup of tea to hand, or coffee if that’s your preference? Maybe a biscuit too, be it a Custard Cream or a Choco Leibniz? Excellent, then I’ll begin (but not without saying that, if it is a Choco Leibniz, you can colour me envious). Let’s start with a summary of the most recent reviews…

Thai Corner, 7.0 – One of Reading’s longest serving restaurants, Thai Corner is still plying a busy trade at the end of town which has never been that fashionable. Is it a timeless staple, or an anachronism running out of steam? I went to find out, and the review is here.

La Courbe, 7.3 – You’re eating from square plates on square glass tables, sitting on square dated furniture in a cold room with no soft furnishings, the door open most of the time and smoke coming from the open kitchen. How on earth did this place get a mark of 7.3? you might wonder. Click here to find out.

Cerise, 7.9 – Everyone knows Cerise is one of Reading’s best, fanciest, most expensive restaurants – and yet nobody seems to know anybody who has ever gone. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out if the hype was justified, and my verdict is here.

Côte, 7.8 – Why did I break my general rule and go review a chain restaurant? Are all chains bad, or all independent restaurants good? And where should you be heading for breading in Reading? These, and so many other questions, are inadequately answered here.

The Pack Horse, 5.1 – I suppose my run of good luck had to come to an end eventually and a rare jaunt out of Reading, down the road to Mapledurham, gave me the opportunity to write about bad tables, indifferent service, invisible hearing aids, the fight against wobbliness and meatballs in faggots’ clothing. Can a single review knit all that together? Check the review out here and let me know.

Mission Burrito, 6.7 – Reading’s fast food scene was always a straight out battle between burgers and KFC until Mission came along and offered something slightly different. Independent, small, friendly and offering something you can’t get elsewhere in Reading? Is there anything not to like? The review’s here.

So, on to the restaurant news (and don’t think I haven’t noticed you scoffing another biscuit – nothing escapes me, you know). First of all, Al Tarboush, the Lebanese restaurant opposite TGI Friday, has closed. It’s not clear why, but I heard mixed feedback in the aftermath on whether this was a terrible shame or no bad thing. It was on my list to review, and I’m a bit sad I won’t get the chance now to make up my own mind; another reminder that restaurants close all the time and you shouldn’t put off going to one you’re genuinely curious about. Reading still has a Lebanese restaurant, in the shape of La Courbe, which isn’t perfect but definitely deserves support.

The site is going to become a new Italian restaurant called Casa Roma and refurbs have just completed. Their website is under construction and can be found here. It’s a brave soul that looks at Reading and thinks “what this place really needs is a new Italian place, right at the edge of town, on a site with a history of closed restaurants and no car park” but, you know, best of luck to them.

I had heard rumours that the Lobster Room had also closed, and wandering past they appeared to be true: the menu boards had been taken down and the lights were off. However, a sign has now appeared stating that they reopen on the 4th of April. It’s not clear whether they’ve closed temporarily for repairs, for refurbishments or to improve their recipe for the most expensive ravioli in Reading (regular readers may remember that it held the dubious honour of having the lowest ER rating to date: the review is here).

My Kitchen, mentioned in the last round-up, has now opened. It’s open until 7pm serving coffee, sandwiches, salads and cakes – I’ve not been yet but it would be good to see another independent competing in the market for lunch trade and taking some business away from all of Reading’s Costas, Neros and Starbucks. Their website doesn’t seem to work (always a bit awkward when businesses don’t get that right) but they do Tweet, here.

We have one other restaurant opening in the offing: the old Glo site on St Mary’s Butts is going to reopen as Coconut Bar And Kitchen. They’re currently recruiting for chefs and claim that they will offer an experience based on genuine street food from across the Far East. It sounds an awful lot like Tampopo to me but a lot will depend, as always, on the execution. Again, no website yet and the Twitter feed – here – isn’t really worth looking at yet. The same goes for the Facebook page, so it’s very much a case of watching this space and seeing what happens.

Also worth mentioning: nominations have opened for the Reading Retail Awards. There are categories for best coffee shop, best lunchtime venue and best restaurant and the defending champions are Whittington’s Tea Barge, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and Côte respectively. If you want to nominate your favourite place, the form is here.

Finally, in the last round-up I mentioned Alt Reading, a new publication covering all aspects of independent life in Reading. They were kind enough to interview me recently for the site and asked me a variety of questions around why I set the blog up, what I look for when I review a restaurant and how I’d like to see Reading’s food scene change. I’m very lucky that they asked me such interesting questions and luckier still that they didn’t ask me anything really difficult, like my favourite cheese (it it Barkham Blue? or a really salty crumbly mature cheddar? a creamy buffalo mozzarella, torn and served with fresh tomatoes? I wish I’d never started this now). Anyway, for those of you who are interested the interview can be found here.

Right, that’s all for another month. See you all again next Friday for another impartial, reliable review of a Reading restaurant – and if you have somewhere you want me to review, you probably know the drill by now.