Years ago street food meant dodgy hotdog stalls serving drunken revellers, their hygiene even worse than their food. Or maybe greasy breakfast vans in lay-bys and giant trailers at festivals, spewing out the stench of stale onions.
How things have changed. We now have the gourmet street vendor, with unusual dishes of exceptional quality, often based on a single culinary idea.
Street food has grown so much, it’s moving indoors. Thomasina Myers turned a passion for Mexican street food into her chain of Wahaca restaurants. Meanwhile, starry chefs are tearing up table linen and offering gourmet takes on the humble takeaway.
Newcastle is ahead of the curve. The Boiler Shop Steamer, held in Stephenson’s old Sussex Street building on the first weekend of every month (including next weekend), offers a variety of treats, from Mexican to Indian, Taiwanese steamed buns to dirty burgers and pulled pork dribblers.
But food vendors and customers can’t survive on one monthly outing. Street food needs a permanent home. Step forward the Grainger Market.
Grade I listed, in the 1830s it was the largest indoor market in Europe. Today you can find butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers, and a great deli called Mmm. You can buy a chef’s hat or a blond wig, weigh yourself for 30p, or browse vintage computer games – it’s a glorious cornucopia. Last week it lost its Greggs, which is no loss at all, for as well as a good range of inexpensive cafés serving traditional breakfasts and lunches, pies and cakes, it’s home to The French Oven bakery.
Best of all, the Grainger Market allows you to go around the world in a single lunchtime. Mrs Diner and I took the tour.
We started at Lindsay’s To Go, a seafood bar offering griddled kippers in a bun, grilled Portuguese sardines, tuna, noodles with crab, and Lindisfarne oysters. A chef called Paolo prepares everything on three tiny portable electric stoves.
Queen scallops were poached in homemade tomato and garlic sauce, with added ground ginger and soy sauce, then poured steaming into a scallop shell with a few twigs of crisp samphire. The sauce was dark and rich, the scallops were fresh, and it cost just £5.95. Paolo lent us his own spoon to scoop up the sauce.
Tiger prawn and chorizo noodles were spicy, though it was hard to find the prawns.
There’s nowhere to sit, for this is food-to-go, but there are round tables for perching.
We moved on to China. Maggie Snowball and her husband Simon own Quay Ingredient on the quayside, my 2014 Café of the Year. Maggie is from the spicy South West of China, and craved the dumplings of her homeland so much that she decided to give Newcastle its very own Chinese dumpling stand.
She’s partnered with Hong Li, a former chemical engineer from Xi-An in the cooler North West. South-North translates as Nan Bei – that’s what they call this tiny gem, selling freshly-made parcels of pork and cabbage, spicy beef and carrot, mushroom and egg and white fish. The dough has low-gluten flour that gives the dumplings a special lightness and there are pots of home-made garlic and chilli oils, spring onion and coriander for sprinkling.
You can buy four dumplings for £3.50, but I guarantee you’ll order more. We tried the bao, superbly fluffy, filled with belly pork sweetened with barbecue sauce. Best of all was Maggie’s wonton soup, a light stock culled from a giant pot of chicken carcasses hidden away under the counter, and tiny wontons that dissolved on the tongue.
We moved to Turkey, via a slice of vaguely authentic Italian pizza from a place called Slice.
The slice, by the way, was of that ultra-thin crispy variety you get in Rome, with very little topping, so it won’t drip on their Gucci loafers. It cost £1.70 a slice or an extra 20p for the tiniest spoonful of sausage or vegetable. It’s fine, but unspectacular.
As for Turkey, this was represented by Fez Food, which had a selection of börek – savoury pastries – for just £1. One was cheesy spinach and sausage, the other spinachy cheese. Both were delicious.
We ordered baklava, dripping with light honey, and sat on stools at a tiled bench watching the world go by, drinking Turkish tea from ornate glass cups with silver lids, listening to a group of Turkish men behind us arguing about something or other. Apparently it’s owned by the people who run Red Flame in Gallowgate. I made a note to visit soon.
It took just 30 seconds to walk from Istanbul to Paris, enticed by the scent of fresh crêpes. Frédéric, who came to Newcastle eight years ago, is a proper Gallic galette-maker.
His buckwheat batter, which he turns into spot-on ham, gruyère and egg galettes, has been fermenting for over 12 hours before Fred, bantering to his audience of customers, sweeps it neatly round the griddle, carefully folding each corner into the centre without disturbing the soft yolk he’s placed in the middle. Perfect.
Afterwards I was about to head off to Pumphreys and Pet Lamb Patisserie for coffee and cupcakes when Mrs Diner calculated our calorific intake on this gluttonous round-the-world trip and called a halt. I could have gone on travelling, and I’ll certainly be back for more.
Secret Diner’s verdict (out of 5 stars)
Food: Fez Food/La Petite Creperie/ Nan Bei/Lindsay’s To Go - all at least 3
Mon-Sat 9am – 5.30pm
(Mon/Wed until 5pm)
Your Secret Diner reviews cover a broad spectrum of restaurants with a clear focus on quality.
Notably you have reviewed eight out of the ‘Guardian’s top 10 budget restaurants’ in Newcastle, at which customers can eat for well for under £10. Couple that with coverage of the region’s best fine dining, you offer a comprehensive guide with something for everyone. The North East has so much to offer and thankfully that’s now being recognised, in large part due to The Journal.
Whether it’s a fancy 5-course meal or a humble pizza, eating out should be an occasion. Impartial reviews written by knowledgeable diners such as yourself help others make good choices on where to spend their cash. Mediocre dining experiences are not just a waste of people’s time and money, they’re wasted opportunities to enjoy something better. Life’s too short, so keep it up!
Kind regards, Atul More, General Manager, Haveli
Dear Secret Diner,
I love your reviews, what you review and where. Even if a place is expensive – so what? It might be that you are going for your own ‘treat of the year’ – your reviews help people make an educated choice on where to spend their hard-earned cash.
Your column, and the property surveying one by Peter Fall that also used to be on Saturdays, have always been the ‘go to’ articles for me, so well done you!
Yours, Phil Dixon
Dear Secret Diner,
Keep the “up market” reviews - dozens are doing others. I’m going to the House of Tides for the second time this March. It’s only for special occasions!
Yours, Danny Groves, Wylam (@dpgroves6)
Dear Secret Diner,
How wrong Anonymous is. There are some brilliant mid-week deals around, especially at Bistro 62 in Bedlington (reviewed in March 2014), which is great value for money.
Yours, Emma Denham (@emmadenham)
Dear Secret Diner,
I agree with reader Sandie Reed (last week), that I made a mistake in not “coming out in the open” with my name, when commenting in the February 14th issue about high menu prices in your column. Therefore, I stand by what I stated and my name is now revealed!
Yours, Kay Cashmore (via www.secretdiner.org)
SD: Thanks for all your comments on this subject. So far I’ve covered 130 eateries, ranging from cafés and pizzerias to Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants, which are inevitably at the more expensive end of the market. I hope I’m uncovering good food for everyone in the North East, and you can read all my reviews on www.secretdiner.org
Do you agree with the Secret Diner’s verdict? Do you have a favourite restaurant you’d like him to visit?
Unless otherwise stated, the Secret Diner pays for his own meals and accepts neither bribes nor freebies, so his advice is always impartial. Restaurants have a right of reply.