Berwick Street, Soho.
Put your camera phones and hashtags away, kids. This food is for eating.
“Hi, I’ll have the…”
“Um, is it a medium or…”
“Five Pounds. Five Pounds. Five pounds!”
I enjoy watching the people in front of me in the queue order from the lady who handles the cash at Jerusalem Falafel. They look behind her for a hanging menu, she says five pounds; they ask about the size, she says five pounds; they say pretty much anything, she says five pounds.
Jerusalem Falafel does one thing in one size and it costs five pounds. That one thing they do is this: the best falafel wrap in London.
People often say that London, unlike other cities, does not have a history of street food – unlike say Bangkok or Mumbai. This is, of course, nonsense. London is a two-thousand-year-old city that has always relied heavily on the mercantile classes and then latterly on endless hordes of factory workers; do we think that all of those hungry workers went back to their duplexes, got their spice blenders out and threw together a batch of hand crimped empanadas? Or took a nice packed lunch of yesterday’s moussaka to work with them? Of course they didn’t. Most of them didn’t have kitchens. Street food has always played a role in London. From cockles and whelks to roasted chestnuts, through pies and oysters.
And so when the “Street Food Revolution” blogged its way into being in, it brought with it nothing particularly new. However, it did lead to people forgetting one important thing that other cities still seem to remember: the best street food the world over tends to revolve around one person or one group of people, doing one thing and doing it very, very well.”
I was recently in Hanoi (I’ll just casually drop that in, no biggie) and when speaking to locals about where to get the best street-food – a dumb sounding question in itself – the answer was always, what are you looking for? If you want Phở bò (beef), go here; if you Phở gà (chicken), go there; if it’s Chả giò (spring rolls) you want, go to this lady; if its Bánh mì (stuffed baguette) go see this girl…and so on and so on.
Many “Street Food Vendors” dotted around London, at godawful pop-up events or trendy markets, seem to have a wide-ranging menu, vegetarian options, six different sizes, ten different sauces, and a choice of sides. That is not a fucking street food vendor. That is a restaurant cashing in on a trend, churning out uber-instagrammable boxes of whatever wanking food craze is doing the rounds at the moment (did somebody say Scandinavian Tacos?) and then charging you the best part of a tenner for the pleasure of it. Fuck all of that.
So back we go to the wonderful, still slightly seedy Berwick Street, located slap bang in the middle of Soho, and back to Jerusalem Falafel. You pay five pounds, you get handed a napkin.
The next man you see asks you one thing, “Yes?”
You simply reply, “One with everything.”
From there you watch the magic happen: hummus as a base, naturally; then lettuce, aubergine, tomatoes, and pickles (if you have it without pickles then you are no friend of mine). Oh, and a few pickled chillies for good luck. Then four golf ball sized falafels, all fresh from the fryer that you can see bubbling away at the back of the stool. The next person you speak to is the boss-man. He applies liberal amounts of a tahini dressing and then asks, “Spicy?” The bright red sauce that he is referring to has a legitimate kick to it, so only order if you’re certain. He tops everything with fresh parsley, rolls and wraps it with the swift precision of an artisan, and chucks it in one of those flat Panini makers to heat through.
While your wrap is being warmed you will notice the last man at work in this stool – the silent hero. He operates amidst a magical cloud of white, spinning dough like a pizzaiolo, rolling, stretching, thumping, and eventually slapping the thing down onto a smoking hot plate. It is this man’s work that holds the key to everything. He is making beautiful, chewy, charred, sourdough wraps. Each one as fresh and tasty as the last.
“Thank you, my friend” the boss-man hands you the wrap and you walk off to find the nearest bench, wall, or patch of grass.
The wrap is stuffed with ingredients. None of this deceptively packaged, measly filled Pret skulduggery. This thing is bursting with deliciousness. Luckily, that sourdough is robust enough to handle it; it does not wilt under the pressure. It holds its shape till the last bite. Each falafel gives great crunch, with a soft, savoury centre. The pickles add sourness, the chillies a gentle heat, the lettuce gives fresh crispness, and the tahini dressing keeps everything moist; it is a simple, glorious triumph. Each mouthful delivering exactly what is needed.
The team at Jerusalem Falafel have not diversified, they have not sought blind growth; everything they do is poured into this one dish – and it shows.
Choice is overrated. It is better to have one good thing than a panoply of shit; and it is better to produce one great dish than a dozen mediocre ones. Jerusalem Falafel is the essence of street food. They know what they do, and Jesus they do it well.
And on a warm afternoon, with the beautiful, lithe young things of Soho going to and fro, and the sound of the church bells ringing, the tramps begging, and the birds singing, it is, undoubtedly, the most satisfying lunch to be found in all of London. All of this at the cost of just five English pounds. Just five soon-to-be-as-useless-as-a-nineteen-twenties-Deutsche-Mark pounds.