Dalston, De Beauvoir, Shoreditch. Not the standard chapter headings from your London guidebook, to be sure. But if you haven't visited my city for a few years, here's the bit you missed: London is moving east.
The tarmac thread that links those three is the Kingsland Road, the Broadway of the East End. A trip along its arrow-straight two miles serves up a United Nations of food influences. Restaurants are generally chaotic, informal, and great value. In other words, a perfect cipher for the waves of immigration that have made this London's most varied (and, suddenly, most fashionable) cultural quarter.
Kingsland's culinary story starts in Shoreditch, on a short strip of the road sometimes nicknamed "Little Hanoi." Refugees from Vietnam settled in the early 1980s and have built plenty of dining choice. My favorite for a steaming, spicy bowl of pho (£6.30) and a cold Saigon 333 is Song Que (134 Kingsland Road; tel. 020 7613 3222). Another popular lunchtime canteen, Loong Kee (134g Kingsland Road; tel. 020 7729 8344), operates a BYO (bring your own alcohol) policy and is equally reliable and informal. Expect to sit up close with your fellow diners, at either place during busy times (which is most of the time).
For a lighter lunch, The Grocery (54 Kingsland Road; tel. 020 7729 6855; www.thegroceryshop.co.uk) has six cozy tables in a nook at the back. The menu is 100% organic: salads, sandwiches, coffee, and freshly-baked cakes. It's just enough to fuel a visit to London's historical interiors museum, the nearby Geffrye (136 Kingsland Road; tel. 020 7739 9893; www.geffrye-museum.org.uk). I recommend stopping by right now, while its re-created period rooms from 1600 to the present day are decked out for Christmas (late November through early January).
Heading north, the next cluster of dining opportunities is on Dalston's busy high street. (It's probably safer not to walk the in-between stretch late at night; take the 149 bus or a cab.) Set inside a converted Art Deco pie and mash shop, Shanghai (41 Kingsland High Street; tel. 020 7254 2878) has one of London's most skillful Chinese kitchens outside Chinatown. Dishes like the Shanghai Devil (wok-fried marinated lamb) and double-cooked pork belly in hot bean sauce are a cut-above the neighborhood staples. If you're on a tight budget, Shanghai's dim sum are discounted (from £1.70 a dish) between 3pm and 5pm.
Dalston's best street eat is almost opposite, in Ridley Road market. A meaty chicken tikka roti with dhal and shredded lettuce at Kashmir Kebabshish (5 Ridley Road; no phone) costs just £2.50; it's my regular brain food when writer's block hits. If you prefer to perch, there are four rickety stools. A huge tray of biryani (slow-cooked spiced lamb or chicken with rice; £3.50) moves from oven direct to the counter each lunchtime.
For a relaxing brunch, Alison Battisby, Community Publisher of hyperlocal news site Dalston People (www.dalstonpeople.co.uk), recommends a detour through the market to the Dalston Lane Cafe (170c Dalston Lane; tel. 020 7254 4704): "The small arty spot offers organic and home-cooked meals as well as the traditional full English breakfast. The omelets [£4.50] are great; it's a place to take your Sunday newspaper."
A little further north still, as Kingsland Road renames itself Stoke Newington Road, Dalston's Turkish and Kurdish residents step up to the pass. Among some excellent ocakbasi (open-coal barbecue) restaurants, the lamb sis at Mangal (10 Arcola Street; tel. 020 7275 8981; www.mangal1.com) is reliably succulent; pair it up with a warm aubergine (eggplant) salad and a wedge of bread baked on the premises.
If Mangal's full (not uncommon), other local restaurants are anything but second-best. Evin (115 Kingsland High Street; tel. 020 7254 5634) is stronger on Anatolian cooking, and has free WiFi. For an Iskender (kebab meat topped with a rich sauce of tomatoes, butter and yogurt; £9.50), it's hard to beat Istanbul Iskembecisi (9 Stoke Newington Road; tel. 020 7254 7291). It's quite difficult to go wrong round here; there's not a hundred yards of Turkish dining like it anywhere in Britain
If you don't have time to sit down, Mangal's other branch at 27 Stoke Newington Road (tel. 020 7254 6999) is all about fast food. But that doesn't mean compromising the quality of the lahmacun, or "Turkish pizza." Mangal's wood-fired oven turns out perfect crispy dough discs topped with a paste made from minced lamb, tomato, onion and peppers, and garnished with parsley. I've yet to find a better £2 lunch in London... and believe me, I've searched.
Donald Strachan has lived in Dalston, and part-time in Italy, for over a decade. His latest guidebook, Frommer's Florence and Tuscany Day by Day, was published in June 2009. He is a regular writer on travel technology for the Sunday Telegraph and keeps an archive at www.donaldstrachan.com.
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