Return to the Tower and a Traditional East End Burrito

The weather here in the UK was so grim yesterday that it’s hard to believe that Sunday in London it was like this.

South Bank of Thames from the Tower of London

We had returned to the Tower of London for the girls to get their ice skating session in before the daughter had to return to Edinburgh. I’m fairly familiar with the area around the Tower (back in the 1980s I had a girlfriend who worked at the Tower Hotel) and it is amazing how much the area has changed in recent years. This is particularly so on the South Bank, where the grim facade of warehouses has either been refurbished as fancy shops and restaurants or replaced with quite stunning modern buildings like those in the photo above.

The building that looks a bit like Judge Dredd’s helmet is the seat of the London Assembly, where the comedy Mayor of London Boris Johnson writes endless cheques to bankroll the Olympics. Incidentally Boris is not the Lord Mayor of London, who hosts the big Lord Mayor’s Show in November, but at least he is democratically elected to represent Londoners. The Lord Mayor of London is Head of the City of London Corporation which governs the London financial district that falls more or less within the old city walls, a role that dates back to 1215.

The really high building you can see in the photo is The Shard (well officially the Shard London Bridge) which at 310 metres will be the tallest building in the European Union when it is completed later this year.

The Shard

Designed by Renzo Piano ,who also designed London’s Central Saint Giles development and NEMO in Amsterdam, it will be a mixed commercial and residential building. Apparently Piano knocked up the original design on a napkin over lunch with the developer in Berlin.

Also in the frame above was one of the Thames Clippers that I mentioned in my previous post, so I took a snap as it went by.

Thames Clipper passing the London Assembly Building

The Tower of London has been many things since William the Conqueror founded it as a fortress to keep the local Anglo-Saxons subdued back in 1066. Aside from being a royal palace, a prison and the home of the Royal Mint it also housed the Royal Menagerie which was first referenced in the time of Henry III when the Sheriffs of the City of London were forced to pay four pence a day to feed the King’s polar bear who was kept there. All kinds of beasts were kept at the Tower and in the 18th Century you could save the one and half penny entrance fee by turning up with a dog or a cat to be fed to the lions.

Kendra Haste's Wire Lions at the Tower of London

The last of the creatures were moved to Regents Park in 1835 so aside from the Tower Ravens, the only animals that you will see today are Kendra Haste’s fantastic wire sculptures by the moat.

Once the girls had finished at the ice rink we hopped on the tube to Stratford to have lunch at Wahaca in the Westfield Centre.

Pure Evil's artwork at Wahaca Westfield Stratford

Each branch of Wahaca has graphics by a local artist, Stratford’s are by street artist Pure Evil. I particularly liked the Day of the Dead style Pearly Kings and Queens on the toilet doors merging Mexican and London iconography, but people would quite rightly think it a bit strange for me to take a camera into the loo, so I contented myself with a picture of the cats at the bar.

Bar at Wahaca Stratford.

As usual the food was brilliant, I had a Chicken Tinga Burrito and a couple of Pacifico beers,

Chicken Tinga Burrito

and went home well happy.

A Beer with Nick at Poncho No.8

You know a trip into London’s Soho is rarely uneventful. The other week just before the weather started to get a bit rubbish I took a wander down to Poncho No.8 in Old Comption Street to have a beer with Poncho founder Nick Troen. Approaching the bottom of Frith Street my attention was drawn to a gutsy rendition of Sisters are Doing it for Themselves from the pavement outside Cafe Nero.

‘That’s a very tight sweater that lass is wearing’, I thought, before it clicked that no sweater permits that amount of swing, yes she was naked from the waist up.  Naturally everybody around had become very British, sneaking a look as they pretended nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all. I maintained my own stiff upper lip and carried on to the restaurant where Nick joined me for a cold Pacifico and a very tasty burrito.

Poncho No.8 Old Comption Street

Now Nick had started his career in the world of corporate banking and I was curious as to why he and his business partner Frank Yeung, had jacked that sort of security in to do something as risky as opening a chain of Cali-Mex restaurants.

‘Well, it’s not as nuts as you may think in terms of crazy danger, just financially very risky! Though of course we’d done our research, I did my thesis at the LSE on burritos and Frank has had a lot of experience in the catering industry, so we felt the risk was significantly mitigated. On the other hand, we’d always wanted to work for ourselves, didn’t have any debt, and mortgage, any wife or kids, so if we did fail, it wouldn’t be the end of the world’.

‘Mexican food is so versatile and disparate, you can pretty much fashion it into anything you want, fast food, mid market or full sit down, and still have huge variations within those sectors. The popularity of Mex food was rising and we saw a lot of space to create a premium mid market offering. Our experiences from California and New York and seeing how the Americans had evolved the burrito into a more Western-centric food was a big factor. ‘

Huge Range of Burrito Fillings at Poncho No.8

I’d certainly agree that Mexican food is on the up, what with restaurants like Wahacca, El Burrito and Mestizo, all in London’s gatronomic mix and Tommi Miers‘s recent TV series Mexican Food Made Simple , but what is next for Poncho No.8, more restaurants or retail products?

‘So many options for where we can go, and whereas we’ll always experiment with different ideas like Ceviche, and Soho’s unique restaurant, more City branches are likely. We think the trend will move south towards Central and South America. We did a limited time offer of Ceviche – fresh fish cured with lemon and lime juice which is Peruvian in origin, but can be found throughout Latin America. Look out for some cevicherias popping up soon.’

Having tried ceviche in, of all places Edinburgh, I will look forward to that, but finally I could not resist asking whether Nick could cook or was he was just the brains behind the operation?

‘Er, neither! Frank is definitely the cook, and we both share strategic and operational decisions. My most particular role is directing the brand and voice of the company which I think is incredibly important. People like companies to reflect the personal element that exists in all of them (after all any business is run by people). Our company is all about funky food, great service and helpful service, and it’s vital to get this across in everything from the design of the shop, to being on hand to go drop some burritos off to a customer ourselves if we’ve got high demand!’

That’s got to more fun than being a banker!

The topless beauty was swilling coffee at one of Cafe Nero’s pavement tables in Frith Street as I made my way back to Oxford Street. I wonder where she kept her change?