No, not *that* Borough street food market, the other one frequented by actual Londoners rather than tourists
At first glance Flat Iron Square appears to be nothing more than a cosy, small-ish street food market tucked underneath a series of railway arches just south of Borough Market. Although it has just 12 stalls, it’s also joined by two bars and, somewhat unusually, three full-fat restaurants with their own seating and toilets as well as proper table service. All of this is in service of the square’s Omeara indoor venue and outdoor events space, which host everything from gigs to immersive theatre and sports broadcasts.
Some might take umbrage with an events space having its own street food hall, taking away precious post-show, staggering home trade from the other restaurants and takeaways in SE1. While there’s something to that criticism, there’s also a lot to be said for any measure that helps stem the streams of booze-scented vomit and discarded half-gnawed chicken wings seeping down Borough High Street on a Friday night. Plus, street food courts can help draw local browbeaten office workers away from yet another insipidly limp Pret sandwich which is always a bonus.
So here’s my guide to the street food options of Flat Iron Square, with separate reviews of the restaurants to follow soon.
The Colombian Coffee Company (aka Colombian Coffee Roastery / Colombian Espresso Bar)
This small, no-frills coffee shop is actually the roaster for the ‘main’ stall in Borough Market, with a small counter here for takeaway coffee and only a handful of seats. Choose the Colombian beans you’d like as the base for your coffee, before deciding whether you’d like it as a flat white, café con leche etc. By rights, the Colombian Coffee Company isn’t officially part of Flat Iron Square – it’s a cosmic quirk of retail geography that their permanent premises immediately adjoin the market. In any case, I’m reviewing them here anyway.
A café con leche made from Yellow Cattura beans was almost like honey in its floral sweetness with captivating hints of toffee and lemon.
A flat white made from the unfortunately named Geisha beans was almost too light for its own good. There was a malty sweetness and a rounded acidity with a touch of tartness, but it was all quite fleeting. Even so, this brew was still remarkably smooth with a thin, silky head.
A flat white made from Bourbon Rose beans wasn’t quite as silky, but its light citrusy acidity and tartness made up for it. The same drink, but made from Caturra beans, sat somewhere in between the Bourbon Rose and Geisha flat whites.
The blandest of all the brews I tried had to be the Castillo as a café con leche. While not entirely lacking in charm with a touch of acidity and sweetness, it wasn’t anywhere as characterful as the other coffees.
As purely utilitarian drinks, none of the coffees here were particularly effective given their lack of caffeinated pep – I was often gasping for another coffee by midday. And yet there are few other coffee shops I’d rather go to in London for a titillatingly characterful drink than the Colombian Coffee Roastery – when the beans and brewing align, the results can be eye-openingly flavoursome.
Average price per cup of coffee: £3.50
Baz and Fred
I wasn’t expecting much from Baz and Fred’s pizzas given the bank of what appeared to be individual pizza-sized electric ovens – the Neapolitan wood-fired oven crowd would not approve. Even with expectations set appropriately low, the pizza bases were still consistently, uniformly disappointing. While thin and relatively crispy, the vaguely Neapolitan-style crusts were also too hard and not anywhere as charred and puffy as I would’ve preferred.
While the Marinara had the benefit of punchy anchovies and capers, it was let down by a second rate tomato paste.
The Jolly Giant’s nduja and chorizo was a giver and a taker in equal measure. Meaty, peppery chorizo was joined by fragrant basil. But this joy was dampened by tired nduja and mozzarella barely worth the name.
Pikmin’s ricotta and courgette pizza was a looker, but neither cheese nor courgette had much to say for themselves. The aromatic basil was the sole highlight, but I’d be surprised if Baz and Fred actually grow the stuff themselves.
If Baz and Fred ever grow tired of shovelling out distressingly below average pizzas, then at least they can take solace in the fine business of reselling pungent basil. For everyone else, there’s little reason to have one of these pizzas when there’s a branch of Pizza Pilgrims within walking distance.
Average cost per pizza: £9
Somewhat embarrassingly for a banh mi truck, Bitten Club only sells the Vietnamese sandwiches on Thursday and Friday. For the rest of the week, and even then only at lunchtime, they serve the fillings on a bed of rice instead.
Moist, meaty chicken was tender, but its alleged lemongrass flavour was somewhat fleeting. The firm and crunchy vegetables were otherwise too bog standard to pick up the slack, while the small/medium-grained rice was just a bit too hard on the teeth.
An alternate chicken dish saw the poultry tinged with the taste of coconut-based curry sauce, while the vegetables had evolved into a coleslaw-like jumble dotted with zesty hints. The Japanese-style pickled ginger was out of place, but didn’t spoil the proceedings. That job was left, once again, to the teeth-grindingly hard rice.
When I finally had a chance to try the banh mi, the results were even more underwhelming than expected given the quality of the rice dishes. The baguettes used were relatively airy, but somehow managed to be both too chewy and too hard with not enough crispness. Duck was modestly sweet, but somewhat dry with not enough fat. Opting for tofu instead as the protein was a somewhat better choice, with the tofu innocuous enough in its soft, yielding texture. Japanese-style pickled ginger will do in a pinch, but more Vietnamese-style pickles would’ve been a better fit – if only to liven up the somewhat dull proteins.
Bitten Club’s vegetarian banh mi was the best of the lot. A lightly curried melange of firm cauliflower and nutty chickpeas was complimented well by the somewhat tart and crunchy pickled carrots and ginger. Even the bread showed some improvement – softer than before with a slight chew.
Average cost per sandwich: £6
It’s not entirely clear what’s so Spanish about this self-proclaimed Spanish street food kitchen, apart from an oinkling of chorizo here and a squirt of aioli there. None of these Iberian accents made much of a difference to Edu’s various burgers.
The patty in the Spanglish was subtly tangy and moreish, but it was too thin to have much of a mouthfeel. At least the bun stayed out of the way and the patty was cooked medium rare-ish. Neither the cheese nor the veg were anything to write home about, with the exception of the sweet cucumber. The accompanying chips were thin and floppy, but they were at least cut from chunks of whole potato rather than formed of reconstituted mash.
The Americana was very similar to the Spanglish, but it had more of a mouthfeel thanks to the slightly thicker, somewhat chewier patty. The main differences between the two beef burgers were the addition of a modestly tangy sauce, a daubing of American cheese and a heap of sweet, tangy and gently sweated onions gracing the Americana. The heap of fillings did mean this burger was somewhat drippy, but not disastrously so.
The main appeal of the fried chicken in the Chick Frito wasn’t the somewhat greasy poultry, but the batter. While not anywhere as pleasing as the fried chook from the neighbouring Mother Clucker stand, the batter ranged from malty and crunchy in some places to soft and supple in others. The peninsular touches here were a dab of modestly zingy aioli and a somewhat sweet and creamy ‘bravas’ sauce that wasn’t hugely different from bog-standard burger sauce.
The bun stayed out of the way in the El Veggie, which would’ve been commendable except there was little to take the spotlight. The aubergine and halloumi were both sliced too thinly to make their presence felt, while the sauces had even less to say for themselves.
The mushroom croquettas tasted like the first attempt at gluttonous cooking by a former wellness influencer weaning themselves off their delusional pseudoscientific dietspeak. On the other hand, it does take a certain chutzpah to sell oily crumbed shells filled with a runny phlegm resembling tinned cream of mushroom soup. To the public. For actual money.
The only thing more detestable than the testroney bro language in the name of the Loaded fries is the dish itself. The weedy thinness of the fries was matched by an equally wan cheese sauce. The chorizo ‘crumble’ was meaty in the same way that a molehill is in the same topographic league as Vesuvius. Meagre sized sausage crumbs unsurprisingly brought little taste or texture of chorizo to this side dish. There are inconsequential, error-strewn side dishes and then there’s this.
Edu’s side dishes should be avoided at all costs, unless you find yourself inexplicably locked inside their stall during an air raid. Their burgers are better, but you’d have to be suffering from high levels of both hunger and laziness to favour their merely okay efforts over the nearby branches of Honest Burger.
Average cost per burger: £9
Despite the countless email pitches in my inbox, I’ve avoided reviewing any of the restaurants in the Ekachai pan-Asian chain. Not because it’s a chain, but because I fundamentally object to the misbegotten notion that any one restaurant or chain can do justice to the myriad cuisines of the gigantic hemisphere-spanning continent that is Asia. I only cover their Flat Iron Square stand for the sake of completeness.
Representing Thailand was a pad thai accompanied by excessively chewy, stodgy tofu. It was so poor, I almost took pleasure from their meagre, scanty non-presence. The thin and narrow rice noodles were a tad too greasy, while their sweet ketchup-like umami faded quickly. The peanut dusting faded into the twilight air, but at least the slices of bird’s eye chilli packed some heat. Pad thai? Bad thai, more like.
The Malaysian and Indonesian part of Ekachai’s menu did not start well. The bone dry satay chicken came in a peanut sauce that was comically clichéd in its transient, one-dimensionally flavoured nuttiness. I’ve had supermarket own-brand peanut butter with more sophistication in it.
Nasi kandar was a two part dish. The curry chicken wasn’t all bad. Although mild, it did at least taste of coconut while the poultry was tender. The beef rendang, on the other hand, was not only bland but so far from tender that I wonder how much slow cooking actually went into this rendang. Even the sambal was disappointing, tasting like nothing more than a mild and moderately tart garlic chilli sauce.
The supple, soft, thick and medium width rice noodles of the char kway teow were a bit too greasy, but not disastrously so. Prawns tasted of little, but did at least have some bounce in their mouthfeel. There was a bit too much in the way of filler beansprouts, while the dusting of chilli was so mild as to be edible by a small child. Pedestrian.
The Chinese segment of Ekachai’s menu was its least offensive, with a roasted meat pairing of char siu pork and roast duck as the high point. Although modest, the umami sweetness of the pork still made its presence felt. The roast duck didn’t come anywhere close to matching the deep, nuanced umami of the very best Cantonese-style roast duck, but with a shallower, simpler moreishness reminscient of a so-so soya chicken instead. There wasn’t enough extant fat either, but at least there was still joy to be found in the supple skins. The meats and the fluffy small grained rice really needed some proper crisp leafy greens too, but oh well.
Ekachai’s selection of dumplings isn’t withouts its charms, but needs improvement. The best of the bunch has to be the pork and ginger potsticker-style dumplings. Thick and doughy, the browned skins came filled with hearty meat flecked with ginger. These were very moreish, almost certainly due to a generous application of MSG, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Tofu and leek dumplings would also have been a winner thanks to their bitter, umami filling, but the skins were prone to greasy sogginess.
That was almost preferable to the supernaturally bland siumai. This combination of scallop, roe and prawn was so subpar, it was more like a plastic display model given Pinocchio-like life. Wooden and soulless.
Eking out a good meal from the few dishes worth having on Ekachai’s menu is barely worth the effort.
Average cost per main dish: £9
The Gentlemen Baristas
Despite having several branches dotted around in this part of London, The Gentlemen Baristas concession in Flat Iron Square has a great deal of difficulty in making a worthy flat white. It proved to watery, characterless and weak on multiple occasions, necessitating a peppier, better tasting coffee from elsewhere by lunchtime.
Their selection of brought-in pastries was a mixed bag in my experience. Carrot cake was sweet, moist and tightly-crumbed, but overly dependent on cream frosting and raisins for sweetness. A cinnamon swirl was similarly pleasing in texture, but the taste of cinnamon was muted at best.
Average cost per coffee: £3
Kancha Ceviche by Bitten Club
Rather than serving its humdrum banh mi and rice boxes into the evening, Bitten Club lends its converted blue vintage van to ceviche purveyors Kancha. Although a few variants are available, almost all use the same base of sea bass and shrimp. Although the latter should’ve been thrown back into the ocean, the thin yet chewy strips of sea bass were not only pleasing in their own right. They contrasted well with both the crunchy, nutty popcorn-style kernels and the alarmingly plump yet yieldingly soft and sweet kernels. The whole lot was bound together by a gently tart brine and sharp red onions.
Imperfect, but nonetheless flavoursome and spendworthy. Bitten Club could learn a few things from Kancha.
Average cost per main dish: £9
The rise and rise of street food stalls serving envy-inducing pasta is one of the greatest blessings of our age. So it’s a shame that La Nonna struggles to rise above dreary chain-level carbs.
A vegan ravioli special was disappointing inside and out. The pasta envelopes themselves were too hard, while the pumpkin inside was far too scanty. The mulchy pesto had all the appeal of damp lawnmower clippings, while shavings of what might have been celeriac posing as pseudo-parmesan were unsettlingly odd for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Vegans deserve better pasta than this.
Vegetarians aren’t served any better. Somewhat firm tagliatelle came topped with one dimensionally sweet mushrooms, so the modestly umami parmesan had to pick up the pieces. The mushrooms were at least taut, slippery and slicked with a lightly creamy sauce, but this dish was only half as good as it could’ve been.
Rigatoni came in a relatively umami tomato sauce and topped with a dusting of parmesan, but their charms were so modest that the fragrant basil had to do most of the heavy lifting.
Reasonably firm, flat-sided tonnarelli is available in both cacio e pepe and carbonara form. The former was deeply unimpressive, a cloyingly one-dimensional cream with an oddly muted pepperiness. If you’ve ever wondered why some people obsess over the many versions of this deceptively simple pasta dish, then this dismal rendition of cacio e pepe shows why.
The carbonara was better, although it ultimately couldn’t live up to the very best Roman versions of this dish. The modestly creamy sauce avoided being too thick and clammy, while the fattiness of the guanciale was boosted by smoky pancetta. There really should have been more guanciale than pancetta, as the pork cheek and jowl used in the former tends to not only have a greater depth of flavour but an even better mouthfeel. Still, small steps.
The quality of La Nonna’s guanciale can be disappointingly inconsistent. The cheek and jowl in an amatriciana sauce was too lean, too soft and devoid of character. The sauce was ultimately dependent on its mildly umami tomato base and a dusting of so-so parmesan to make a bed of humdrum fusilli enjoyable.
The bovine part of the animal kingdom wasn’t represented any better. Wide ribbons of al dente pappardelle came topped with what was supposed to be an ox tail ragu. The sinewy, earthy strands of meat were indeed present, but the tipped-out-of-a-jar spag bol-style red sauce was hardly the best way of showing off its charms.
Small, pillowy soft gnocchi came in a mildly sticky and moreish sauce occasionally ticked with bits of ox tail. Although not the best showcase for ox tail either, it was at least enjoyable on its own terms.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the best part of the chilli prawn fusilli was the relatively springy and salty prawns, rather than the timid chilli tomato sauce which had the same level of heat and character as ketchup past its use by date. Most of the flavour came instead from aromatic basil.
Unlike all the other stalls/stands at Flat Iron Square, La Nonna sells desserts. They’re prepared, brought-in desserts, but it’s still a notable addition. The doughnuts were the best of the two options – light yet dense, chewy and filled with Nutella, they were easily good enough to overcome the disappointment brought on by the accompanying bog standard dipping custard.
The tiramisu consisted mostly of cream with hardly any coffee-flavoured sponge worth speaking of. Avoid.
The mediocre pasta dishes from La Nonna are barely a step above the slop served by the various high street chains. That would be bad enough in most cases, but it’s barely tolerable in a city experiencing a pasta renaissance not only in dedicated restaurants, but at more accomplished street food stalls at other markets and food courts. In the face of such intense competition, La Nonna needs to do better.
Average cost per main dish: £9
Laffa isn’t a comedy variety show participant plucked from the audience, but a market stall selling vaguely Levantine-ish filled flatbreads. The eponymous flatbread was thin yet sturdy with a layered softness. The size can vary quite dramatically though, depending on the whim and ability of whoever is serving you, with just as much variability in the quality of fillings.
A lamb kofta was not only shrug-inducing, but oddly U-shaped like a Cumberland sausage. The chilli and garlic sauces were disappointingly insipid and tended to leak out of the flatbread, spilling everywhere – a highly undesirable trait in a street food dish. Even the pickles failed to stand out. The best part of this wrap, surprisingly, was the coleslaw-like grab bag of veg – tart, bittersweet and lightly crunchy. When the best part of a kebab wrap is the vegetable garnish, then something has gone deeply wrong.
Chunks of chicken were relatively moist and smoky, but tasted little of saffron despite their yellow hue. The nutty tahini and slaw-like veg made up for the tame chilli sauce. An uneven wrap, but at least it was filling.
Laffa’s vegetarian option of a flatbread filled with aubergine, chickpeas and courgettes was a wildly uneven effort. The amount of aubergine was so small as to be microscopic, while the chickpeas were borderline mushy. The bulk of this sandwich was made up of pleasingly sweet, lightly buttery courgettes, rejuvenated pickles which packed a brinier punch and tahini with improved nuttiness.
A variant with added halloumi not only still had the flawed chickpeas, but so little aubergine and courgettes as to be in danger of violating trade descriptions regulations. At least the soft, milky halloumi melded well with the nutty tahini.
Laffa? You must be having a laugh.
Average cost per main dish: £9
I’ve been perhaps too dismissive of the uprated fried chicken trend that has swept London in recent years, which is probably tied to my low opinion of what passes for most chicken in this land. Mother Clucker’s fried chicken has almost single-handedly convinced me that I should be paying closer attention to battered, deep-fried poultry.
The best thing about Mother Clucker’s isn’t their chunky chook, which is just plain ol’ breast meat – the least interesting part of almost any chicken. It’s the almost seamless batter – crunchy yet somehow simultaneously soft and almost entirely free of excess oil. More poultry pakora than KFC, it was a deceptively simple yet beautiful thing to behold. The weedy fries and timid hot sauce were nothing to shout about; even when opting for the extra hot variety which was barely any hotter than American mustard. Opting to have the chicken in a bun was a better, lighter source of carbs with the bread, salad and American cheese staying out of the chicken’s way.
Not all fried chicken is created equal. If you eat at Flat Iron Square and don’t order Mother Clucker’s chook, then you’re really missing out.
Average cost per main dish: £9
Savage Salads has long been a street food market stalwart, perhaps most prominently at Soho’s Berwick Street market. Their mission to bring a better, more inventive class of salads to London’s lunchtime crowds is a noble one even though the results don’t always do justice to that mission.
The choice of salads can vary, but a workman-like pairing of beetroot and cous cous makes frequent appearances. The bittersweet mix of lightly dressed kale and cabbage is an even better choice, as is a heap of croutons soaked through with the juices of umami tomatoes. Buttery borlotti beans were let down by tired, overcooked peppers, aubergine and broccoli.
Of the three protein toppings on offer, cow’s milk halloumi was consistently the most crowd pleasing with its squeaky saltiness. If the bovine gods are kind, then you’ll be blessed with relatively tender and well-browned steak. If not, then you’ll end up with chewy shoe leather. Moist but bland chicken was pepped up by a vaguely moreish herb sauce. One of the advantages to having all three is that their juices soak through to sheafs of pitta sitting underneath, with the soaked carbs often proving to be far more enjoyable than the meat and cheese.
Savage Salads is far from perfect, but it’s still preferable to most of London’s salad bars and their bain marie troughs wheeled out at lunchtime for the capital’s white collar masses.
Average cost per salad: £6-8
I’ve covered Tatami Ramen before as part of my 2017 tonkotsu group test, but the quality of the Japanese noodle soups at this stall has not improved in the intervening years. The creamy, one-note umami of the soup was a shallow imitation of the very best tonkotsu broths. Plus, its was scorchingly hot enough to blanch the already bland, lean pork. The rocket was an unwelcome intruder, but this bowl wasn’t all bad. The noodles were springy, firm and moreish, while both the nori and fungus were pleasingly chewy. Even so, this was a second-rate bowl of tonkotsu ramen.
Despite the middling nature of its key dish, Tatami has branched out into other dishes. Although crunchy, the batter of the chicken karaage was a tad too oily with humdrum meat underneath. There was too much tame chilli mayo, wasn’t even based on kewpie mayo, and a bit too much mirin. Tatami’s neighbours at Mother Clucker have nothing to worry about here.
Shrimp gyoza was too greasy with an unsatisfactory mouth feel to the dumpling skins. At least the Chinese-style prawn and chive filling packed an umami punch.
Both salmon and tuna uramaki sushi are sometimes available, but these brought-in trays aren’t worth bothering with. Both fish were barely identifiable as such, but at least the rice was reasonably fluffy and served at room temperature. Cold, hard and claggy rice is often what makes takeaway and supermarket sushi taste so utterly wretched.
Despite an unwelcome repeat appearance of rocket, the chicken katsu curry was not only Tatami’s most successful non-ramen dish but arguably better than the lacklustre tonkotsu ramen itself. Although the poultry was nothing to write home about, at least the batter was crunchy and firm while the curry sauce was mildly peppery and moreish. The fluffy and soft small-grained rice clumped together neatly.
Brought-in kimchi was surprisingly tart and sour with a gentle prickly warmth.
Tatami’s tonkotsu ramen continues to be a pale shadow of better Japanese noodle soups in this city, so it’s no surprise that many of their other dishes follow in the same plodding footsteps. Shame.
Average cost per main dish: £9
Flat Iron Square may be a small street food market, but it’s far from perfectly formed. Of the 12 stalls, only Mother Clucker and the Colombian Coffee Company are straight-up successes with Savage Salads and occasional evening trader Kancha Ceviche as worthy up-and-comers with respectable if imperfect showings. The others range from merely okay to gaze-avertingly bad.
After years of seemingly unstoppable ascendancy and limitless potential with the very best traders going on to open restaurants, street food in London appears to have hit a rut in at least some markets from this one to the original Mercato Metropolitano. It’s especially galling here at Flat Iron Square, where the market’s three proper restaurants are generally more-or-less better than the vast majority of traders. Something appears to be going terribly awry with street food in the capital. Whether it’s new competition from food courts stacked with spin-offs of proper restaurants or other factors entirely, it should concern anyone who loves eating out in London.