Birmingham cheap eats
Friday night means one thing in Birmingham. Under Lower Trinity Street’s imposing arches a steamy sea of tangy, sticky, rambunctious flavour awaits. Gathering pace since its inception in 2012, the Digbeth Dining Club now attracts street foods’ biggest hitters and commensurate crowds, ranging from edgy creative types to wide-eyed suited and booted city folk. Cheap eats don't come much better than here.
Birmingham hardly abounds with Gujarati veggie restaurants, so Jyoti’s isn’t competing in a crowded market, and could almost get away with being bad. But it’s not, and, after a single, sublime meal, even rampant carnivores will grudgingly admit that omitting meat does not mean an absence of flavour. Starters are perhaps the most fun part; try a multi-textured, tastebud-tickling bowl of bhel puri, patra – a Gujarati speciality of stuffed, rolled colocassia leaves and mogo chips – chillied cassava fries popular amongst the East African Indian community. Order the trio, and you’ll still have change from £10.
Do you remember the dark years in Birmingham’s history when a jacket potato qualified as an exotic lunch option? From 11.30am until 3pm each week day, the good people at Habaneros help to exorcise those sweaty, polystyrene-clad memories with a hearty dose of Mexico, which can even be ordered from the comfort of your office desk. What's being knocked out here is as good as it is good-value.
For the adventurous foodie in search of of new flavours and food experiences, Blue Nile is both an interesting and pocket friendly choice. The Jewellery Quarter restaurant specialises in Ethiopian cuisine, a much underrated food culture made distinctive by its use of slow cooking, unique breads and traditional spices.
If you're yet to make it to the boisterous but enlivening Bull Ring Indoor Market, then you’re about to hear yet another reason why you really should. Fresh seafood might not be the first thing you'd seek out in an entirely landlocked city but in the hands of Pearce’s Shellfish, all expectations can be squarely realigned. Superb seafood served at prices that will definitely please your pocket.
Hall Green’s Raja Monkey is slightly more forward-thinking and embracing of modern marketing methods than many South Asian restaurants, presenting a range of thalis and streetfood in a breezy, accessible manner. Steel serving-ware adds to the canteen vibe; thalis, snack platters and stacked tiffin tins. The latter are also employed in home deliveries, whereby £10 buys a shiny silver tin, collected empty and replaced with a fresh food-filled one with every subsequent order.
Vegetarianism is the name of the game at this meat-free cafe in Martineau Place in Birmingham city centre. Conveniently located near the new tramline, 3 Three's specialises in jumbo vegan frankfurters. But this is just one option on an expansive vegan and vegetarian menu. You can get soups including spinach, split pea, while the salads menu features corn, quinoa and edamame options. Gluten free foodies are well served with a range of gluten free crisps, sweets and chocolates.
A few minutes' walk from the city centre, under the arches of Water Street, the Soul Food Project guys (think The Church Inn) have reinvented lunch to-go in Birmingham and for that we bow down and give thanks. Unable to source first-rate fresh bread on a commercial scale, the team decided the obvious solution was to open its own bakery and, from the hummus and carrot on artisan white to the buttermilk Hock Dogs, the results have been universally scrumptious. The pecan pie is the stuff of JQ legend.
Among the very best additions to Brum’s foodie scene in 2014, Rico Libre has already established itself as a tapas trailblazer. Housed in a less than salubrious former greasy spoon, the food and the personality command centre stage at Digbeth’s buzzy newcomer. Head-chef 'H' and the team dish up authentic Spanish favourites such as patatas bravas, calamari and whitebait with more than a hint of a Jamaican zing. Best of all is the price, at £12 for any three dishes, plus a BYO booze policy. Courses arrive as they roll out of the modest kitchen and with the sheer quality of the offering necessitating large orders, expect your table to quickly become crammed with dishes and debris.
Among the many Indian and balti restaurants of the renowned Ladypool Road, Antep flies the flag for Turkish cuisine with its authentic selection of grilled meats, traditional salads, casseroles and Turkish pizzas. There's a full takeaway service, but this is no casual kebab joint. The restaurant’s Eastern-decorated interior boasts stunning tilework and the tables are usually filled with families and friends dining out.
While Dosa Mania is unlikely to win acclaim for its shabby interior, when it comes to Southern Indian cuisine, the family-run restaurant and takeaway is leading the charge. If you're wondering where to start, the clue is in the name. We can’t get enough of the thin and crispy paneer dosa. Given the BYO policy and neighbouring off-licence, you’ll struggle to leave Dosa Mania having spent more than £15 per head and for that, you're likely to be either dangerously full or with tomorrow’s lunch to take home.
Unpretentious, comforting fare dominates at Birmingham’s longest-serving vegetarian restaurant, which enjoys a relaxed feel. Minutes from both New Street and Moor Street and at the mouth of Digbeth’s aspiring throng, The Warehouse Café is located on the first floor of a Victorian property, converted with just the right amount of kook. The menu is inspired by seasonal British fruit and veg and there's a commitment to a transparent and ethical supply chain. Expect enthusiastic portions or organic, fair trade, locally sourced grub - all at very good prices.
Located on Ladypool Road, Al Frash's décor is more perfunctory than palatial – think bare tables (all the easier to wipe clean!) and white walls punctuated by loud abstract canvases – but the welcome is warm and all the art one needs comes from the kitchen. It’s cheering to note that the owners clearly care about their customer’s health, wealth and wellbeing; using vegetable oil for frying, delivering a satisfyingly small bill (£30 for two should do), and allowing you to bring along your own tipples without charging for the privilege.
Ashiana can confidently claim the crown for Birmingham’s very best Persian plates - it's all very inexpensive, too. The pick of the starters is the northern Iranian mirza ghasemi (baked aubergines mashed up with with lots of garlic and herbs). Satisfyingly smokey and served up with a generous, straight-from-the-oven flatbread, the biggest challenge you'll face is leaving room for the main event. The charcoal-grilled minced lamb skewers are the pick of the mains. Marinated and seasoned in a manner befitting royalty, they're almost impossibly juicy.
Casual, lively and playfully Latino, Bodega is one of the most hard-to-book restaurants in Birmingham. The secret of its success lies in its combination of novel food, buzzing atmosphere and killer drinks menu. When Bodega opened its doors back in 2011, there wasn’t really anywhere else to go for a quality South American street food experience. Bodega’s moreish menu of burritos (£6.25), nachos and must-have sweet potato fries (£3.50) were the hook that pulled in the Brummie crowds.
Comfort food means different things to different people. For us, there is little more comforting than a behemoth of a bowl of Cafe Soya’s noodle soup. Cut, amongst other things, with slices of roast pork, fragrant stock and a herb garden of green, the results are as messy as they are glorious. Situated on the edge of Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter at the bottom of the RAG market, this Vietnamese café is a touch or two above the rest - and it's all available at a very reasonable price indeed.
Chains dominate the Bull Ring and its surrounds, so it's refreshing indeed to find a first-class, independent Japanese bento and sushi bar but 30 seconds from Selfridges’ frenetic doors. Mount Fuji is the real deal and unlike many decent Japanese offerings, it won’t bankrupt you. For a light bite, try the chef’s finest cuts of the day in the form of the sashimi salad, which usually includes slithers of tuna, salmon and squid with a fragrant, citrus soy dressing. Throw in a steamy cup of authentic miso and a smattering of edamame beans and you’re about as close to Tokyo as you'll get in Brum.
The word ‘karczma’ is Polish for inn or tavern, and this unique restaurant sets out to recreate the hearty rustic feeling of a Polish country cottage inn. Its ‘discovery’ by Guardian food critic Jay Rayner in 2012 brought a wave of new interest to the quirky old favourite. Conveniently, the restaurant is just a few minutes walk from the main shopping centres and train stations in the centre of Birmingham. Bring on the yummy stuffed dumplings (£7.50), creamy pickled herrings, beef stew on potato pancake (£14.70) and beetroot soups (£6.20).
Moroccan cuisine often flies under the radar as other, shoutier food trends like Mexican or Thai grab the limelight. But the subtle flavourings, patient slow cooking and rich variety make La Fibule a perennial Birmingham favourite. Poulet Casablanca (£12.95), for example, is a brilliant and unusual dish of stuffed chicken breast with prawns, capers and smoked salmon. The fish dishes are notable, like scallops with saffron and monkfish with almonds (£16.95 each); both tasty reminders of how Morocco’s long Mediterranean coast has influenced its cooking.