Words by Ed King / Pics by Charlotte Rose
As I circle the back streets of Digbeth, Energy 52 on the CD player and an industrial graveyard outside my windows, I feel I’ve been here before.
Only tonight I’m wearing shoes, there are no pills in my pocket, and the chance of seeing Slipmatt is overwhelmingly unlikely.
Unless of course he’s hungry (nice segue…) as tonight is the relaunch of the Digbeth Dining Club, “a place where people can come after work on Friday, where everything is available.” Considering my initial reference, I should clarify; four stalls, selling “artisan food” in the small courtyard at the back of Spotlight in Digbeth; with enough trestle tables, chairs and happy hour beers to encourage a gregarious feel.
“Don’t get me wrong, we like fine dining,” say organisers Jack Brabant and Mark Laurie, “but we wanted to make good food accessible – a place offering tastes that you would have in top end restaurants but for about £4-5.”
“Most of the stall holders here are chefs,” explains Laurie – who is also Director of NCASS, a national trade association for ‘event and street food catering’, “who use the mobile catering units as a way to experiment and create new recipes”. I look behind me to a popular stall called The Hungry Toad, and the birthplace of the notorious full English burrito.
But there are other, less breakfast based menus on offer; with The Meat Shack apparently proffering the best burgers in Birmingham. A bold statement, and direct challenge to any burger enthusiast. I take my place at the back of a very long line.
En route, the queue forces itself past Jabberwocky – a husband and wife team offering ‘street food and bespoke catering’.
Tonight’s menu is toasties, lots and lots of toasties; ranging from a posh ham and cheese, a shoulder of lamb with caramelised onions, to the infamous ‘Banoffee’ – which is exactly what you think it is.
So out of hunger, intrigue and sympathy that the queue for their neighbours, The Meat Shack, is blocking their frontage (but mainly hunger) I ask the bouncy Flick and Barry to recommend something. They suggest the crab with wilted spinach and chive mascarpone, the most expensive item they serve at £5, and I nervously tuck in. I am complicit, but deeply suspicious of seafood.
Despite looking like, well – a toastie, it surprises me greatly. The crab is subtle, blending almost unnoticed with the chive mascarpone; allowing the wilted spinach (or seaweed as Charlotte, the BR photographer and proxy taste tester, expected it to be) just enough room to wipe your tongue clean. Next time I’ll try the lamb, but I am pleasantly surprised.
But bollocks to toasties, it’s burger time.
And as Paul, who gave up a life of graphic design to become the purveyor of beef sandwiches (after having seen “a gap in the market”?) is busily organising the most meticulous serving counter I’ve seen on four wheels, Charlotte and I have a look down the menu. I want it all, but I settle for ‘The Hell Shack’, complete with peppers, fried onion, hot green bullet chilies and ‘oozy American cheese’.
Charlotte snags the last ‘Buffalo Blue’, with blue shack slaw, blue cheese topping and Franky buffalo sauce, and we squeeze onto some bar stools in Spotlight to eat.
Cooked in a brioche bun, The Meat Shack burgers fulfill the most crucial of all sandwich law; to sustain its integrity. Like a tower block of pensioners, nobody wants to be left with a crumbling mess.
‘The Hell Shack’ is hot, spicy, but pleasantly bearable (God bless Brum’s Bengali chefs for toughening our taste buds). It’s delicious, with considered balance and fine quality beef. But a touch small for my liking, my only complaint. Charlotte couldn’t fully describe the ‘Buffalo Blue’, being too busy eating it and I take this as a positive sign. Plus it was the first menu item to sell out.
I finish, and need something to dodge the last hot green bullet chili. Mercifully Spotlight has a 2 for £5 beer promo on – which, in the interests of journalistic endevour, I explored. Twice. Then went outside for more food.
Van 29 was my next stop, which I will explain to you in dialogue. Picture the scene; man approaches van, looks up, and sees a cardboard sign declaring ‘Chicken Sold Out’:
BR: ’Chicken Sold Out’… What else would you recommend?
Van 29: ‘What?’
BR: (points to sign) ‘Chicken Sold Out’, what else would you recommend?
Van 29: ‘I think The Hungry Toad is still serving’
BR: No, I mean from you. What else would you recommend?
Van 29: (looking incredulous) We’ve sold out of chicken?
BR: (now also looking incredulous) Hence the prefix, ‘what else’
An awkward pause…
Van 29: We only sell chicken. I could make you a waffle?
I follow his initial advice and move over to The Hungry Toad; which I discover, whilst scouting the crowd for Vox Pops, has been the reason several people attended.
But The Hungry Toad had also sold out, although I am explained this with handshakes, mirth and a promise to return. So watch out breakfast burrito, you’re now top of my hit list.
Digbeth Dining Club is a wonderful concept, although – in my mind, the London comparisons are not needed or helpful. Ambitious, creative and well attended on a cold March 1st evening, I keep sincere fingers crossed for its long standing success. Plus the two men behind it seem to have enough nouse and resources to see it actually ‘develop’.
My biggest complaint was the food selling out, a bad move for an event selling food, and the layout of food stalls felt a little crammed in. Although Spotlight, with a spacious mix of seating and fluid bar staff, works well as a host venue on the inside.
But I’ll be back, minus pen & paper; Digbeth Dining Club has that loquacious energy that makes festivals such fun. I shared my evening between people I hadn’t seen in years and people I’d just met, all with genuine affection for the event they’re attending.
To surmise, I scan through my notebook; random conversations, sporadic giggle fits, feelings of store bought solidarity and general goodwill…
Maybe it’s not so different from an evening of warehouse dayglow after all. Only quieter, cleaner and with much safer burgers.
Digbeth Dining Club is held every Friday at Spotlight, with entrances on Lower Trinity Street and Heath Mill Lane. Food is served from 5:30pm.
For more information on Digbeth Dining Club, visit http://www.digbethdiningclub.co.uk