Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Farm

Address: Corner of Church St and Birchin Lane, Manchester
Tel.: N/A
Roast Pork Sandwich: £2.50
Ice cream: Small £1.50, Large £1.80

The owner is a sheep-farmer, his brother is a pig-farmer, together they have created easily the cheapest and most convenient cafe in Manchester city centre.  Round the corner from the Arndale under a corrugated roof, you can sit at a rough wooden counter and stuff your face with barms crammed with succulent roast pork, crunchy chunks of crackling, sweet apple sauce, and thick and herby stuffing.  Should you want something else, perhaps a wild boar sausage, or a bacon sandwich, or a pot of small-production chutney or jam, these are all available for incredibly reasonable prices unseen anywhere else.  The jams are two for £3 and the chutneys two for £4, all sandwiches are under £3.  You don't get that in Tesco.

After a roast pork sandwich, what better than handmade ice cream in familiar and unusual flavours. Baileys, raspberry cream, vanilla, blackcurrant-licorice - The Farm has them all.  Even when it's been cold and rainy these past few weeks, I haven't missed an ice cream yet.  The blackcurrant-licorice is my particular favourite because it balances these two strong flavours well, and the overall taste is quite wintry, an unusual characteristic in a dessert wholly associated with hot summer days.

With the cheap-cheap prices, locally-sourced produce and bucketfuls of flavour, it is imperative that people support this small cafe with irregular hours (it closes when the pork runs out), or it's back to chain restaurants and Greggs as the only affordable options within spitting distance from Market Street.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Vnam Cafe

Address: 140 Oldham Rd, Manchester, M4 6BG
Tel.: 0161 205 2700

Pho: £5.50

Considering the depths of despair I plumbed following my last foray into pho, I considered consigning my love for this Vietnamese super-dish to memory only.  I could stick to my South Asian and British favourites and forget the love affair my taste buds have with Vietnam.  But, while trying to find Bubble Café's address for the last post, I stumbled upon a glowing review for a small café straddling the cultural divide between the Northern Quarter and Ancoats.

Opposite Wing Yip's cash-n-carry megastore and the Royal Mail sorting office  is a curious string of shops.  In between signs only in Chinese, hairdressers, salt-of-the-earth sandwich shops, and windows filled with electronic goods, is Vnam Cafe.  Its small sign gives little away, "Authentic Vietnamese and English Food," but the menu in the window hints at the extent of the chefs' culinary prowess.  Ignore the prosaic lunchtime sandwich offerings geared towards those whose jobs don't allow them to luxuriate in a bowlful of just-right noodle soup for lunch.  Due to my pho fixation, I did not venture to try any of the large number of barbecue dishes on the menu, but I will absolutely be returning to eat my way through the listings.

I ordered the pho bo (beef pho) for a very reasonable £5.50.  What arrived fifteen minutes later perked my spirits up no end.  It was the pho I had wanted when I made my ill-fated trip to Bubble Café.  Crunchy noodles covered with coriander, onion and bean sprouts, with a plateful of coriander, bean sprouts and sliced hot chilli on the side.  The beef was sliced thin and was tender from the burningly hot soup.  Although the beef seemed to have been cut roughly, it added a great meaty flavour to the spiced broth.  The noodles were al dente and did not descend into a mush at the bottom of the bowl, and I made sure to eat every single one. Rather than lime, a single wedge of lemon came with the dish, which was a drawback in some respects (as I like pho with a citrusy tang), but the piles of coriander, chilli and onion that were available meant that little other flavouring was necessary.

As a future lunchtime haunt, Vnam Café checks every box.  Cheap, clean, friendly and delicious, with an extensive menu that demands I return, I certainly will be venturing down the unfashionable end of Oldham Street again soon.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Bubble Cafe

Address: 72 Portland Street, Manchester M1 4GU
Tel: 0161 244 5755
Pho: £6
Bubble Tea/Slushy/Milkshake etc: £2.50

Has pho hit Manchester? This tasty Vietnamese noodle soup, chock full of coriander, chilli and lime with a delicately flavoured broth, took America (or at least its culturally literate urban areas on the East and West coasts) by storm.  But when I returned to Britain, nobody had heard of it. Then, as I was obsessively trawling through restaurant reviews online, I came across one for Bubble Cafe, a new place on the edge of Chinatown that "specialises" in bubble tea (tea, smoothies, slushes or milkshakes with jelly pieces or fat tapioca balls) but also serves Vietnamese dishes such as pho, bun bo and hu tieu noodle soups, banh mi (baguettes stuffed with pork, pickled vegetables and pate), spring rolls, and salads.

Pho is the perfect lunch - a light broth, al dente rice noodles, paper thin slices of beef, crunchy bean sprouts, shredded coriander (stalks and all), circles of mouth-burning chilli, and a couple of limes split into quarters. Sadly, Bubble Cafe provided none of these pleasures.

The first indicator that something was wrong was when the woman behind the counter told me that they only have chicken pho. I asked if they had any beef but was met with a shake of the head. Soldiering on, I also ordered a passionfruit slush bubble tea and sat at one of the tables to wait.  

What was delivered to me was not pho. The broth tasted like instant chicken soup, the noodles were mushy, the only evidence of the coriander was a few straggly pieces, and a single quarter of lime adorned my plate. But the worst thing was the chicken. The pho soup is meant to be so hot that it cooks whatever ingredients are thrown into it, resulting in tender slivers of beef and fragrant spices and herbs. The chicken in Bubble Cafe's pho had been pre-cooked and was torn into chunks, making cold and fatty islands scattered across the bowl. A disappointment in every respect.

The bubble slushy provided a stark contrast to the so-called pho. Flavourful (no doubt provided by chemicals - as in all bubble teas) with succulent tapioca pearl, it provided a tasty and moreish counterpoint that would make me return, but only for drinks. I should have taken my cue from the East Asian students sitting around the cafe, all slurping on bubble teas but none eating any food.  

My hunt for pho in Manchester continues apace.


I love food.  I love eating it, tasting it, smelling it, finding it.  Manchester has a lot to offer, and what it has is always expanding and changing.  Currently unemployed, my budget affords only cheap eats (each meal can't go over a tenner, and most will be way under that), but I've never let that stop me from eating delicious food before.