The burger pub pop up has form in Cardiff. Got Beef followed Hang Fire into The Canadian not far from here, and if you were paying attention you’d have known that Ansh was the new best burger in the city while they were only serving out of their van at St Canna’s two and a half years ago.
Which brings us neatly to Adamsdown-Roath-Splott (argue it out among yourselves) and my former local. The Royal Oak, formerly owned by a cousin of world champion Peerless Jim Driscoll, is busy with boxing memorabilia and famously had a boxing gym upstairs until recently. It is also one of the very few Cardiff pubs to have its own Wikipedia page. With its tiled floor, and stained glass windows intact, this is very much an old-school boozer where a pint of Brains Bitter and a lager will set you back just £7, so chinstroking craft beer bores after yuzu-flavoured saisons or Patagonian DIPAs boasting unicorn foreskin and an ABV higher than Jonathan Gullis’ IQ might be disappointed in the options.
It’s also the home of Hench Burger. After years in some notable Cardiff kitchens, some time travelling and a decade in London, chef Josh James has returned to the area. After falling in love with smash burgers on his American stint, this is his homage. Right now, there are some disappointing examples in the city, where the basics are ignored and the results are predictably drab. As a lover of a proper one, I’m just looking for things done right. For reasons to be optimistic. More than anything though, I want evidence of heat and pressure. That’s all: the basic principles. And when it comes to explaining the art of the smash, no one does it better than J. Kenji López-Alt.
See, by placing a ball of meat on a hot, unoiled griddle and smashing it down firmly into a flat, thin disk, you greatly increase the contact points between the meat and the griddle, which in turn increases the Maillard reaction. That’s the series of chemical reactions that create the rich brown crust that makes our steaks and burgers taste so freaking good. Maximum crust = maximum flavor = maximum craving.
You can tell Josh is serious about Hench. Proper smash burgers need a solid cooking surface, something which can take and hold intense heat. So he did something your average kitchen takeover doesn’t trouble itself with: he welded his own 14mm-thick steel plancha to sit over a four-burner stove.
It’s a hefty piece of bespoke equipment for doing justice to a bespoke mixture. Working with a renowned local butcher he uses a combination of brisket, short rib and sirloin with a crucial 20% fat. It is a busy menu for a standalone burger joint, let alone a kitchen takeover. His travel memories are plastered over the menu like sticky fingerprints: the chicken katsu curry he had at 6am in Tokyo, the chilli chopped cheese from a random shop in New York or the best chicken, brie and cranberry sandwich he ever had in Paris.
Is all this effort worth it, then? Happily, yes. Potato buns are increasingly popular for good reason, and these are sturdy enough- just- for some busy fillings. Crucially, though, the beef is well-seasoned and wears its crust with pride. Those gnarled, broken-edged patties are heavy with enhanced beefiness.
The ‘Londoner’ is stacked high, with a subtly meaty Bovril mayo the attention-grabber. Is it a little ‘busy’ for my tastes? Yes, but there’s no denying the quality of what’s in there. Second time in, the New Yorker could probably do with a tweak in the accompaniments (matron) and I end up unburdened it a little: but at heart it’s a very good burger indeed, and the mustard mayo is just the thing. That beef is right to the fore. And I love the fact you get an actual bottle of Sarsons with your chips.
Loaded fries are meant as a sharing portion, crispy onions topping an iron skillet’s worth of chicken katsu and cheese, vividly coloured and spiced: spring onion, coriander and gochujang mayo. The New York are hefty with nuggets of minced beef, blanketed with a thick duvet of American cheese, a slather of cheese sauce with sriracha mayo and cajun-spiced onions & peppers bringing some kick.
Hench isn’t niggardly about its portion sizes. It’s all about generosity and plenty. There’s a vegan version, too to complement the four meat free burgers: It’s not just about the beef. There are several chicken and meat-free options, from thigh and breast to the fermented vegetables of Neil Rankin’s well-regarded Symplicity brand, a more interesting option than yet another meat-mimicker.
I’d like to see the simplicity of a patty-focussed double with cheese. No distractions. A single patty version is listed: a doubled-up version, just beef, cheese, sauce and bread would be a resounding hit, I think. You sense this that after this settling-in stage, the menu might change with time, but even now this is somewhere doing good things.
Josh is doing good things here, in one of the last pure pubs in the area. I admire his ambition: there’s much to enjoy here on a menu which gets the beefy basics absolutely right, but brings everyone else along with it.
Hench Burger, The Royal Oak, 200 Broadway, Cardiff CF24 1QJ
Weds-Fri, from 5pm; Saturday and Sunday, from 12pm
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:
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.