Mowgli, Honest, Pho, Rosa’s: Church St has become a hub of the better chains. And now here come Fat Hippo. Starting in Newcastle in 2010, this is not an overnight success story but a steady expansion across the North before the moves to Wales, Birmingham and London. News of their Cardiff arrival was greeted with some scepticism, and even outright hostility, when they took over the former Bub’s. Another chain seeing potential in Cardiff, whilst proclaiming themselves ‘the best’ in the city? Bah. Pitchforks were gathered and torches lit. Which equates to ‘a few of us on Twitter got a bit cross.’
But when I asked people who had tried them at competitions, I started to look forward to them. This is the farthest south they have come so far. The former bar has had a moody facelift, with black walls, monochromatic graffiti and wooden floors. Outside they have (heated but uncovered) seating if you fancy the Chutch St people watching thing.
Some positive initial impressions: all the chicken is Halal, and there’s a generous vegan starters and burger menu. There’s a standalone ‘build your own’ children’s menu and a lighter lunch option. They have clearly put some thought into making this inclusive. It’s worth noting that menus come with calorie counts.
Freddie’s Fingers- unlimited comic potential here, Banter Lads- are chicken strips with decent flavour and generously portioned, but could and should be crisper. Ditto the frickles, which are tasty enough but whether through sitting on the pass for a couple of minutes too long or the oil not being quite hot enough, are a little flabby. Trash Browns are at their best with the optional bacon crumb, which adds smoke and salt to the cheesy shenanigans.
Burgers are essentially very simple things. Good beef, with an optimum mix of cuts and fat content. Seasoning. Some evidence of Maillard reaction on that beef. The ability to eat it with your hands, rather than have to disassemble it like some meaty Jenga tower.
Good bread with strength and ‘give’- here, a toasted demi-brioche- with that elusive ‘sexy squidgability’ (TM) a bonus.
Well-judged toppings. And perhaps most of all? Knowing when to stop, because sometimes more is less and it’s all about actual eating- not showing off on Instagram.
On the invitation evening, I keep it simple. It makes it easier to see what they’re about before they start elaborating. Or overelaborating, as the case may be. It’s a very tin tray and branded paper vibe, proclaiming this menu as ‘The good kind of gluttony‘. That’s nice, isnt it: everyone should have a favourite Deadly Sin and Gluttony’s my second. And the ‘American’ is rather enjoyable, too. There are those rewardingly gnarled, frilled edges where the beef has met heat, and hearty slather of yellow mustard, ketchup and gherkin.
It very effectively recreates the flavours of a McDonalds double cheeseburger or quarter pounder. If you’re curling your lip in Proper Foodie disdain about now, then I can’t help you: it’s a refined version of one of the most successful fast food burgers every created, a version with better beef and better bread, and rather good it is too. One of Cardiff most interesting youngish chefs is on the next table; he enjoys his pick less than I do, giving it 4/10.
Burgers come with skinny fries or slightly chunkier ‘hand cuts’. Have the latter, for that smoky house blend seasoning. You can upgrade to sweet potato if you must, though I’ve never met a sweet potato fry which can top its potato equivalent.
My companion finds her Swiss Tony a little disappointing, simultaneously underseasoned and overpowered by the truffle mayo. And tempting though it is to do the whole ‘Making a burger is very like making love to a beautiful woman…’ schtick (‘You have to ready your meat, slide it between waiting buns’ etc) I’ve got better things to do.
Second time around, another friend finds the amount of Peanut butter and the sweeter elements better balanced in his ‘PB + JJ’ than other examples he’s had. My Born Slippy- you can order four lagers, but they’re extra: a little joke there for you, forged in the white-hot topical heat of 1996- hits the spot too. The pork itself is plentiful, well flavoured and has been shown some direct heat of its own and allowed to crisp up in places.
Service is perky and personable, even on the two occasions I’m there as a paying punter and they haven’t invited me there to say nice things about them.
So where does Fat Hippo sit in relation to the local burgerscape? It’s comfortably better than some peers. I can see Fat Hippo and Honest splitting opinion fairly evenly, and it’s a decent option for a busy city centre. They are well set to be successful in this location, and they have certainly been busy on both paying visits.
But any claim to be ‘the best in Cardiff’ has to reckon with one four letter word. Not that one. Or that one. Or even fun ones like pith or ulna. My benchmark locally- for Wales- is Ansh. And if you don’t know why, make that your priority.
Fat Hippo, 17 Church St, Cardiff CF10 1BG
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.