The grey sky dissolves into grey pavement. It is high noon but the sky’s feeble grey light feels like dusk already. December on the Old Kent Road. The world is dull and cold. And we are hungry.
We step out of London and into the Parrilladas del Sur. A warm Bolivian smile and a loud chorus of Andean music greet us. There are guitars and sports trophies on one wall, a bright neon heart on another. Behind the counter an enormous cauldron of soup is steaming away. The day is looking up.
Tom and I dust off our broken Spanish and introduce ourselves to Don Pepe, the short, sturdy boss of this family run grill. It’s time for B -Bolivia- the second stop on our journey round the world foods of London. The Parrilladas del Sur restaurant has been a popular eating spot for homesick South Americans for the past eight years. Gringos are welcome too.
We order the set lunch menu (soup, a main course, and a drink for £6) and take a seat. I feel as though I am in every Andean cafe I have ever been in. Memories of cycling through the thin, limpid air of the high, dusty Bolivian altiplano come flooding back. Quiet, placid Bolivians sip their soup slowly. Panpipes and Peruvian pop tunes blare from the television mounted to the wall. The lady cooking our lunch cackles good-naturedly at my bad Spanish. Her gold teeth gleam as she stirs her cauldron. Am I in Cochabamba or Camberwell?
Don Pepe brings two bowls of soup to our table. Chicken soup for Tom, rib soup for me.
“Gracias, Don Pepe.”
“Buen provecho. Enjoy your meal.”
I add a spoonful of homemade garlic and chili sauce to my soup and stir it in. Spring onions swirl round the bowl, round the mighty chunk of slow-stewed rib meat that fills most of the bowl. The soup is delicious and warming. The music’s loud and I like it. I pick the rib from the bowl with my hands. The meat is fabulously tender and by the time I’ve eaten it all I’m so full that I need to take a nap. Tom munches on the large leg of chicken in his soup.
But there is no time to nap. Don Pepe is back again. He is concerned that his restaurant is not at its busiest during our visit.
“Today is Monday. A quiet day for us. You should come at the weekend. We sell 500 saltenas. And when they are sold out we move the tables to the side, sell more beer, and the dancing begins. You must come back!”
He clears our bowls and replaces them with what I can only describe as silly-sized main courses. Tom, as befits his alter ego, has chosen more boldly than me, plumping for tongue. I have gone for the sil pancho, an old and safe favourite from South America. It is a vast swathe of flank steak, the size of a small republic. It has been beaten thin, coated in breadcrumbs, and then fried. It lies resplendent, along with a couple of fried eggs, atop an Andean mountain of rice. I wash it down with a Chancaca drink made from unrefined sugar, cloves, and cinammon.
There are few good challenges left in life: a clean plate in the Parrilladas del Sur is a good challenge. I eat the lot and marvel at what good value this meal was. I am marvelling all the more by bedtime that evening when I am still not hungry! Don Pepe’s set lunch is effectively two meals for the bargain price of just one.
Bolivian food is hearty. It’s safe. It’s comfort food. Hangover food. If you are searching for Michelin stars you should skip this letter of our alphabet. But if you have ever been to Bolivia, or hanker to go, then this character-drenched cafe on the Old Kent Road is a wonderfully authentic, welcoming Andean experience.
Parrilladas del Sur, 186 Old Kent Road SE1 5TY, is open 7 days a week from noon.
There’s much, much more on the London World of Food website.
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