I am lucky to receive many e-mails from readers, some of which include recommendations about places not yet visible on my radar. One such tip off led me to The Meat Wagon on Friday lunch time, excited at the prospect of trying their burger and, importantly, finding out what type of bun they use. I found the wagon parked up in an industrial estate behind Peckham Rye Station, a twisty trail of meaty smoke rising from within and a reassuring sizzle audible from a good twenty paces away.
I was relieved to find burgers still available as my reader warned me they often run out. I asked the owner, Yianni, to ‘make it spicy’ and as he set about cooking it, he told me that what I am actually getting is a ‘Bobcat Burger’. Apparently, he doesn’t advertise it as such for fear of trademark infringement as the recipe is inspired by one served at The Bobcat Bite in New Mexico. It is the chillies which make it Bobcat, specifically the way they are glued to the top of the burger with melted cheese.
Yianni chops half a green chilli and fries it in butter and a touch of chicken stock. “Not averse to a bit of butter I take it?” he checks. I laugh and reassure him that I feel quite the opposite. The frying releases the flavour of the chillies; the active ingredient, capsaicin, is water repellent and so will only be released when the chilli is cooked in some kind of fat. If you add a chilli into something straight, or into a stew or soup without frying for example, you will simply get the heat, but none of the flavour.
When the frying is complete, he tips the whole lot straight over the burger while it is still on the hot grilling plate, to a spectacular sizzle and steam. A few moments later, cheese goes on and seals the chillies in a juicy, hidden layer. To finish the burger Yianni toasts the bun and adds ketchup, mustard (French’s mild and sweet), lettuce and onion. There are of course variations on saucing and pickles available (a must in my opinion). As he hands me the finished product, carefully wrapped in foil to preserve it for my journey, he warns that the longer I wait the less likely it will be as rare as I wanted because the butter from the chillies penetrates the meat and continues cooking it (not to mention the residual heat). I look up at him with a delirious grin, drunk on the thought of butter seeping through beef.
When I arrive home I find the burger has squidged slightly and I curse myself for not cradling it in my hands like a delicate flower rather than slinging it enthusiastically into my bag. No matter, it is still good – a bit of re-arranging and I take the first bite and ohmygod; it is still juicy and pink, the meat (100% chuck from MacDuff cattle) is well seasoned and the butter laced chillies add richness and flavour with a subtle heat. It is gooey with cheese.
And the bun? Well, it was actually a light sourdough which, on paper I would have thought wrong, wrong, wrong but in all honesty, it worked. With only a hint of sourness and light as a feather beneath the slightly chewy crust, it was different from a regular sourdough. It does not surprise me to learn that Yianni and the baker have put quite some time and thought into it.
Apparently, he’s not a fan of brioche but I can forgive him because brioche would not be right for this burger, which is all very soft and squidgy. Salad is shredded and added sparingly so there is no ultra crisp crunch of lettuce or onion and the layers of cheese, butter, beef and sauce fuse together in a rich meld of gooey harmony. And so the bun plot thickens. There was me thinking I could go test some buns, decide which was the best and be done with it. Turns out the success of the bun type varies across burgers – pretty obvious now I come to think of it.
Yianni won’t be back in London for a while as he is taking his meat wagon off for a three month long trip to The States – to sample burgers and other carnivorous delights. “Meat is my thing” he tells me. I can’t wait to taste the ideas brought home from his travels. In the meantime I will continue my own burger experiments, which are going well, at the time of writing. I made these last night (post coming up) and they came out a treat – almost perfect in fact. Almost.
The Meat Wagon
All over the place – see website for details