If there’s an ‘R’ word other than ‘restaurant’ that will elicit fierce emotions and strongly held opinions, then it’s ‘regeneration’ and the associated effects of gentrification that go with it. It’s therefore no surprise that the regeneration of Woolwich’s dilapidated but elegantly vaulted Public Market into Street Feast’s latest street food stall night market was a little bumpy.
Aside from the usual unfounded NIMBY-ish complaints, concerns about effects on existing local businesses and gentrification were also raised in some quarters. While valid, the horse has nonetheless bolted from that stable. The local historic Royal Military Academy is being converted into high-priced housing that most Londoners – locals or otherwise – can’t afford, while rough sleeping continues unabated. Shiny new Berkeley Homes-built apartments sit atop the brand-new Crossrail station, all mere yards away from a high street that is still, in parts, literally abandoned and crumbling to pieces.
Against that background, Street Feast’s Public Market is a bellweather – a sign of how things are and of things to come – rather than a significant causal fault line in of itself. The operation has provided a few dozen jobs to locals and has also created a surprisingly vibrant public space, despite only being open on Friday evenings and Saturdays, with occasional extended hours on bank holidays. Its mezzanine bars and cavernous school hall-ish dining areas don’t just attract wannabe hipsters, as some feared. Families with young kids can munch away happily on burgers while playing on their tablets. Meanwhile, a good-natured hen party decked out in sombreros at the next table will get slowly sozzled on wine and cocktails.
Despite being eminently relaxed and good-natured, yet orderly with some high quality food on its menu – qualities few of the other local public spaces can offer – this could all be swept away. Even if Street Feast’s licence wasn’t time-limited, there are plans afoot to demolish the handsome market and its immediate neighbours (which are admittedly much less handsome) to eventually make way for new housing and a commercial development. If you want a hastily-designed regeneration project to worry about, with all the attendant problems endemic to London’s dysfunctional, badly-regulated property market, then that would be it.
In other words, Street Feast’s days at the Woolwich Public Market are already numbered despite having just opened. That final night is some ways off, but one should never take anything for granted. Here are the stalls and dishes at Woolwich Public Market you have to try – and a few you should skip.
Table of Contents
Burger and Beyond – burgers, of course
Change Please – coffee
Henhaus – chicken
Ink – battered seafood
Rust Bucket Pizza – that’s amore
Salt Shed – red meat
Yum Bun – dumplings and Taiwanese-style gua bao
Lava Bar – doughnuts with ice cream
Burger & Beyond
Burger & Beyond apparently started out in the Home Counties, but don’t hold that against them. Their flagship BBB burger was, despite being a sloppy eat with lots of drippage and dribblage, a magnificent beast. The patty’s relatively smooth grind meant it didn’t quite have as much mouthfeel as I would’ve liked, but it was bursting with umami and a distinct beefy tang. It had more than enough character to get along without the salty, fatty bacon and the gooey melted cheese. Even so, those embellishments were well-chosen as they didn’t obscure the beauty of the patty too much.
The patty in the cheeseburger had a slightly coarser grind and was no less delicious than the bigger BBB. It was a far tidier sandwich than its larger cousin, due in part to having less cheese which is ironic for a self-proclaimed cheeseburger. The drippiness was hardly missed though, especially as it made room for the mild sweetness of caramelised onions.
The Hot Mess was very similar to the cheeseburger, but with occasional slices of fiery jalapeno instead of onions. Both the Hot Mess and the cheeseburger were fine, fine burgers, but I’d rather have the BBB any day of the week and twice on Saturdays. With and without the bacon.
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Average cost per main dish: £8
Cards only? Yes
Public Market’s one and only coffee cart is only usually open on Saturday afternoons. You’re hardly missing anything though – the flat white was a weak and deeply dull affair. Despite the non-existent head and lack of silkiness, this coffee still managed to taste more of milk than anything else.
Given that this part of London is a desert for good coffee, this is even more disappointing than it would be otherwise. Change Please is an admirable social enterprise, but that in of itself isn’t always enough.
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Kick in the pants rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Average cost per coffee: £2.50
Cards only? No
I’ve pontificated about chicken in passing on numerous occasions. It is, for the most part, a remarkably dull and charmless meat. Chicken can rise above its mundane drabness, but it takes both a chef and a chicken farmer of uncommonly high standards for this to happen.
Henhaus, somewhat inevitably, was merely satisfactory. Its chicken is available in quarter, half and whole bird portions. Supple skin gave way to reveal slightly salted meat that was moist, but also a tad greasy. It was far from bad, just yawn-inducingly ordinary. It was highly dependent on the peppery hot sauce for character, more of which is needed as it also has to pull double duty to liven up the drearily floppy fries.
Chicken ‘bombers’, or popcorn chicken to those of you that are fans of the repulsive KFC, was even more drab. My serving was hotter than a Kardashian’s arse wedged into PVC and plonked onto the Central line in the middle of an August heatwave. It desperately needed more resting time. The breadcrumb shell exteriors weren’t too bad once it had cooled down to a comfortable temperature, but the bitty shreds of oily chicken underneath had all the appeal of a grease-stained cardboard box full of chicken bones left behind on a bus seat.
Henhaus’ main dish isn’t bad, but when it’s barely any better than the cheap filler available from Woolwich’s branch of Nando’s then something has clearly gone wrong.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Chicken cost: £15 whole, £9 half, £5 quarter
Cards only? Yes
Ink is Public Market’s only stand aimed at pescatarians. Reasonably firm bits of squid were deep-fried in a batter that turned out to be thick, dense, crunchy and free of excess oil. It was no tempura (not that Ink made any such claim), just a bit dull with the promised flavour of Sichuanese pepper faint and transient. That meant the modest dose of umami in the ink-stained mayo was all the more disappointing.
Although the filet-o-fish lookalike used the same satisfactory batter as the squid, it was more satisfying thanks to the light flakes of white fish used. The mayo and cheese weren’t too cloying either. Not bad.
Ink’s deep-fried fare is a modest step up from Woolwich’s chippies, but only a modest one. Perhaps someone will serve up some deep-fried seafood in the capital really worth shouting about, but that day is not today.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Average cost per main dish: £9
Cards only? Yes
Rust Bucket Pizza
Rust Bucket Pizza has a rather torturous origin story for a street food stall. After having allegedly been shafted out of a proper restaurant premises by an unscrupulous landlord, the plucky Italian proprietors set up shop in a literal shack. While laudably entrepreneurial, doing so without the requisite licences on a plot mere yards from the local Greenwich Council offices inevitably meant another forced relocation. Now plonked near the main entrance to Public Market with a wood-fired pizza oven catching your eye, Rust Bucket’s stand even resembles the wooden shack they once cheekily occupied.
Rust Bucket is one of the most popular stalls at Public Market, which inevitably means long wait times on occasion. When the queue is short, expect a five minute wait. A moderately lengthy queue extends those wait times to 15-20 minutes, which gives you enough time to buy a drink from one of the market’s bars.
When they’re more popular than kittens coughing up free money, the wait times can be so lengthy that you might as well go home and try making a pizza from scratch yourself. Rust Bucket could clearly do with more staff and a bigger (or an additional) pizza oven.
No matter what though, keep an eye on your order. Since the laconic yet somewhat haphazard staff haven’t mastered complex techniques like numbered tickets for orders, there’s a high chance that your order will get lost as mine did. If that happens to you and you somehow manage to prise an apology out of the monosyllabic staff, then let me know how you did it.
All of this potential palaver is worth putting up with though. While there is some noticeable variation in the quality of their pizza bases, when they get it right the results are sublime. A Marinara came with a pillowy soft yet elastically tearable base. Although the oregano was muted and there wasn’t enough of the reasonably punchy garlic, the combination of sweet olive oil and umami tomatoes was still potently flavoursome.
The base of the Margherita was similarly soft and pliable. Umami tomatoes, punchy sweet basil and gooey, milky mozzarella made for an unforgettable threesome. So much so that I almost regretted burdening this accomplished pizza with peppery, creamy nduja – which added a meaty accent to the proceedings – and the cool milky creaminess of torn burrata pieces. Almost.
The Vegetariana may not be imaginatively named, but it’s certainly apt nomenclature. Buttery courgettes, sweet and fleshy bell peppers, umami tomatoes and fragrant basil were all testaments to the green fingers that raised them out of the ground. The only thing more elastic and tearable than the base was the mozzarella, leaving behind taffeta-like trails of gooeyness.
When Rust Bucket is firing on all cylinders, its pizzas can be astonishing works of art. A Marino came with a smaller, but exquisitely well-formed base. Golden, weightless and puffy with a delicate crispness – the very thought of it makes my toes curl and my hairs stand on end. Although the anchovies weren’t especially fleshy, their salty tang was neatly boosted by the oregano and olives – all of which neatly segued into the umami garlic and tomato. It’s just a huge shame that Rust Bucket can’t hit this standard consistently and repeatedly.
When Rust Bucket has an off-day, the quality of its pizza bases suffers noticeably. The base of a tomato-free salsicca and friarielli, while still just about pliable enough, was just a bit too stodgy and hard for comfort. The toppings were top-notch though – the herby bitterness of the meaty sausage morsels was neatly boosted by the similarly bitter leaves and stalks of the supple broccoli. The creaminess of the outrageously gooey cheese helped ensure that the bitterness never became too overwhelming.
The base of the diavola was flawed in different ways. While pleasingly pliable, puffy and pillowy for the most part, the crumbly charred burnt spots were excessive and noticeable in their acridness. The slices of sausage were meagre, leaving it to the sweet, milky mozzarella and the umami tomatoes to pick up the slack.
Rust Bucket’s focaccia is effectively a cheese and tomato-less pizza that’s topped with rosemary instead. This makes it all the more critical that they don’t screw up the base and, on this occasion at least, they didn’t. Fluffy light and crisp, it tore apart with minimal effort. There wasn’t enough of the reasonably punchy garlic, but there was an overabundance of rosemary – its overpowering aroma and acrid edge is something that should be found only in your gran’s drawers and not on a focaccia.
If Rust Bucket could knock out their pizzas to the same delectably high standard that they’re clearly capable of in a consistent and reasonably quick manner, they’d easily romp home with a Four or Five Star rating. But they’re held back by their uneven output and deeply haphazard logistics. Great potential; must try harder.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Average cost per pizza: £8
Cards only? No
Salt Shed is one of the more professional, restaurant-looking operations at Public Market with the polished black, spot-lit aesthetic of its stall and the well-honed politeness of its staff.
Slices of beef short rib had a woody bark, charred yet sweet. The bovine flesh underneath was a tad too tough and characterless though, especially with the connective tissue missing in action. There’s a reason why this cut of beef is at its best after low-and-slow cooking. With both the beef and the accompanying floppy root veg chips highly dependent on seasoning, this protein plate was ultimately unsatisfying.
Butterflied lamb similarly started off well with a woody bark. The tender, lightly earthy strands of meat underneath stood in stark contrast to the poorly executed short rib. The earthiness was transient though and lacking in character – especially when compared to admittedly pricier lamb dishes elsewhere, such as the superlative version at Brat. That meant this lamb leaned on its seasoning and its sprightly, zingy sauce for flavour – ultimately to its detriment.
Deep-fried olives weren’t too oily, but the dull breadcrumb coating still somehow managed to partially mute the mild salty-sweetness of the fruits underneath. Thanks, but no thanks.
Salt Shed may look impressive, but looks are deceiving when their meaty menu was this unimpressive.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Average cost per main dish: £11
Cards only? No
Yum Bun is a Street Feast stalwart, popping up at the Lewisham Model Market following the closure and demolition of their Shoreditch site. I’ve covered Yum Bun before, so it’s a little disappointing to see that their Taiwanese-style gua bao buns have remained relatively static while their admittedly better-funded competition have strode ahead.
While soft with a slight chew, Yum Bun’s rather thin buns weren’t especially fluffy or pillowy. They weren’t bad, just forgettable. The sole vegetarian filling, miso mushrooms, was a fine one with the supple, tart and earthy mushrooms licked with a lightly umami glaze.
The carnivorous options were inconsistent at best. The rather insipid pork was only occasionally meaty and in desperate need of more fat and less of the oddly chewy, claggy skin. Dominated by a hoi sin-like sauce that outstayed its welcome, this bao was a waste of a pig.
Crunchy, oil-free batter encased lightly meaty chicken. This chook bao was dominated by its lightly piquant chilli and garlic sauces though. A second version a week later was better – the heavier, more satisfying chunk of chicken was neatly complimented by a revamped, tartare-style sauce.
Instead of refining its gua bao, Yum Bun has instead branched out into dumplings. Despite my initial scepticism, they turned out to be surprisingly decent and a welcome change from the meat-in-bread offerings of many street food stalls in London. The dumpling skins could’ve been more texturally consistent – somewhat tough in places, supple yet sturdy in others. The tart, lightly spicy and vinegary sauce aptly complimented the meaty, juicy, herby hit of the pork and chive dumplings. It was equally at home with the taut, earthy and lightly bitter charms of the mixed mushroom variant.
It’s a shame that Yum Bun’s gua bao have stagnated, comparatively speaking, but they’re far from inedible with some joy to be had here and there. You’re probably better off with the dumplings from this stall though.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Average cost per main dish: £4-5
Cards only? Yes
If you want dessert after having your savoury full at Public Market, then Lava Bar is your only choice (I certainly don’t recommend the nearby Urban Ice).
Lava Bar’s doughnut-ice cream pairings are a somewhat mixed affair. The bready, somewhat stodgy English-style doughnuts weren’t to my taste. Even so, it’s worth skipping the version filled with a rather tasteless molten chocolate centre in favour of the salted caramel variant. Its salty viscous tang was not only a joy in its own right, but was more fitting as a partner for the crunchy peanut crumble.
The accompanying ice cream was bracingly cold and refreshing. Dense and milky with an intermittent cornflake-like sweetness bolstered by extant bits of cornflake, I could quite happily guzzle buckets of this stuff paired with the crumble and the salted caramel. Sod the doughnuts.
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Average cost per dessert: £6
Cards only? No