Market stall BBQ settles down on Commercial Street
Market stalls and street food tend to be underestimated and under-appreciated by many visitors to London. That’s their loss as street food vendors can often be far better than more established restaurants, as my group test of American-style barbecue eateries demonstrates. An increasing number of street food vendors are settling down in permanent premises and one of the latest is Hotbox, a barbecue purveyor I hadn’t heard of before but whose name is now indelibly etched in my mind.
Hotbox can be a little tricky to find. The restaurant doesn’t have any external signage, but does have a large neon sign above the reception desk. This is visible through the glass frontage, but only if you’re approaching from the north and not from the south. It’s easy to find if you’re know what you’re looking for though – it’s the building with black framed windows immediately across the road from the Bundu Khan Pakistani restaurant. Oddly, the menu isn’t on Hotbox’s website at the time of writing but I’ve got that covered.
Located in the borderland between the City, Whitechapel and Shoreditch, the atmosphere of Hotbox definitely tends towards the latter. The moodily lit restaurant is manned by friendly, efficient, well-bearded staff. The counter seating is handy for lone eagle diners, but beware of the benches at the communal tables – if you’re a short arse like me then you’ll find them uncomfortable, especially if a fidgety fat arse at the other end can’t keep still and keeps shifting the entire bench around with their incessant, over-excitable squirming.
First things first
Hotbox’s beef short rib is a massive half-kilo serving of beef on the bone. The glossy, taut and yielding bark gives way to reveal strands of very tender and moist meat. It’s lacking in smokiness and depth of flavour though, especially when compared to the very best barbecued beef short ribs from street vendors Smokestak and Miss P’s Barbecue but it’s still better than the truly bland and uninspiring version from Q Grill. Most of the fatty unctousness here is concentrated in the very small and thin layer of collagen attached to the bone. I had no complaints about the tart and refreshing pickled cucumbers and red onions served on the side though – these come with all the mains at Hotbox and are an essential part of any good barbecue.
The slices of smoked sausage weren’t especially beefy, but they were mildly spicy and very soft – almost to the point where they resembled rillettes or andouillette. Enjoyable.
The side of beets and roquefort was a good counterpoint to all the meaty heaviness. While the hunks of beetroot were very mild, the slices of apple were far more tart and were livened up further with soft, creamy goat’s curd-like roquefort pieces and crunchy crutons.
Hotbox avoided the predictable inclusion of a brownie or sundae to its dessert menu, but it didn’t fall too far from the American pudding tree with molten chilli chocolate. While suitably gooey, the dark chocolate was lacking in character while the promised spiciness was muted. The flambéed slices of banana on top were also limp and lacking – the scoop of ice cream served on top had more tang and sweetness. Disappointing.
Going back for seconds
Hotbox’s beef short rib may have been a relative disappointment, but its pork ribs were outstanding. The tender hunks of swine flesh slid off the bone easily. Although they weren’t especially fatty, they were very moist with a gentle smokiness and a bark that was peppery with occasional hints of fruitiness. I’m not quite sure which cut of ribs these were – they seemed too small to be spare ribs, yet too big to be baby back ribs. I’m guessing they were blade end ribs. In any case, the sublime combination of taste and texture makes them one of the best barbecue pork ribs I’ve had in London.
The pulled pork was sublime. The fruity bark gave way to reveal a hunk of pork with a firm bite. It was bathed in a thin, fruity, vinegarish sauce that complimented the occasional hit of fat perfectly. Fantastic.
A large pile of pickled chillies accompanies the pork ribs, but it’s worth saving these and having them with the ham hock beans instead. Although I found the sweet and lightly peppery sauce of the beans too sickly at first, it quickly grew on me – especially when pepped up with the pickled chilli slices. If their fiery spice doesn’t warm up your cockles on a blustery, wintry day then nothing will. Even without the added kick of the chillies, the firm bean husks and occasional hunk of meat are perfectly good on their own.
The sticky toffee pudding seems far too English for an overwhelmingly American menu, but it’s not quite as out of place as it first appears. The best sticky toffee puddings use dark brown sugars which are often made, in part, from molasses. This viscous substance is often used in barbecue sauces. It’s a somewhat tenuous connection, but I’ll take it when the result is as good as Hotbox’s sticky toffee pudding. The light, airy pudding had a rich, dark sweetness and a slight chewiness to it. The accompanying ice cream was unremarkable, but that hardly matters.
Any concerns I had about the consistency of the kitchen’s efforts was put to rest by sampling the pulled pork a second time. It was just as good as before, so it’s easily my new favourite version of this classic barbecue dish.
The kitchen pulls in influences from beyond the traditional American barbecue belt, but these are carefully blended in when they work best rather than being shoehorned in. The beet and roquefort salad from my first meal is good proof of that. Another one is the pickled jalapeño coleslaw. The slices of cabbage weren’t too hard on the teeth, while the dressing wasn’t too sickly or overpoweringly creamy. Treat the slices of jalapeños with respect though – they made my eyes water and cleared my sinuses and I wouldn’t have them any other way.
The beef short rib tacos come also close to being an exemplar for this fusion approach, but just falls short. Although the tortillas almost certainly used wheat flour instead of corn flour, I didn’t mind so much. The chipotle mayo emphasised the smokiness of the tender beef and added a gently creamy undertone. The chewiness of the fried shallots contrasted nicely with the tenderness of the beef, but they also tended to be a bit overwhelming too. Close, but no cigar.
As I was eating just before Christmas, I had to try to the Christmas pudding ice cream which was suitably evocative with its combination of raisins and brandy. It may be a minor variation on rum and raisin, but what the heck – Christmas! The salted caramel ice cream was muted both in saltiness and sweetness, but having attempted to make salted caramel ice cream myself, I can appreciate just how tricky it is to get the balance right between the two.
Go fourth and multiply
Considering the almost universally high quality of Hotbox’s other barbecued meats, I felt compelled to give the beef short rib another chance. It was just the same as before though – tender and moist, but lacking in depth of flavour.
Hotbox’s non-American influences seem most dominant in its sides. The wrinkly kale was dressed in an extremely moreish combination of lemon, garlic and chillies. The simply-described mushrooms turned out to be a surprisingly complex mixture of shiitake, shimeiji and a big meaty ‘shroom that I couldn’t identify. The lightly sticky dressing tasted of sweet soy sauce and ginger and complimented all of the mushrooms exceedingly well.
Deep fried Oreos sounds like the sort of American excess that only drunken fools could love, but I’m terrifyingly sober and enjoyed them quite a lot. Not because of the Oreos – you know exactly what you’re getting with that mass-produced one-note confection. It provides nothing more than sweet fluffy filling here. It’s the batter that’s a thing of beauty – crisp, oil-free, light, airy, perfectly golden and with a passing hint of maltiness to it. The chocolate sauce served on the side in a small jug had, surprisingly, far more dark richness to it than either the accompanying chocolate ice cream or the molten chilli chocolate dessert. Rather than the limp ice cream, a lighter, more refreshing element would be welcome to counter the relative heaviness of the battered Oreos and chocolate sauce.
Hotbox’s beef short rib still needs some work, but the exceedingly high quality of its pulled pork and pork ribs, as well as it fun and tasty sides, makes it one of my favourite barbecue restaurants in London. Previously, if you’d wanted American-style barbecue in this part of town then your only recourse was the Tower Hill branch of Bodean’s – a mostly lacklustre prospect. No longer. Walk, don’t run.
What to order: Almost everything…
What to avoid: … except the beef short rib
Address: 46-48 Commercial Street, London E1 6LT
Phone: 0207 247 1817
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday noon-22.30 approx. Closed Mondays.
Reservations: only accepted for groups of six or larger.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £35-50 approx.