It’s a great name, no? Instantly evocative of the Stones’ infamous 1971 classic- founding member Bill Wyman has a tourist trap burgers’n’ wings joint with the same name in Kensington- it’s certainly digits to the fore: there’s hardly a dish here you won’t end up messy with. Anything which works on both levels and has a whiff of the dissolute is always going to be a good thing.
The move from the Brewery Quarter to Roath made immediate sense to me, and it has obviously been vindicated by both increased traffic and quality. Each of these traders deserves their own post: and although there will be changes to the line up (Brother Thai’s stint ends today), and with the admissions that this day had begun with a croqueta, fino, oloroso, palo cortado and manzanilla starter at the ever-reliable Bar 44, and that I can’t hope to do them justice in this format, let’s press on.
Hoof quickly claimed to be ‘Burger Kings of Cardiff’, which is fighting talk. The menu is calculated to simultaneously tick all the right modish boxes, and inflame appetite.
Unusual bread choice (challah) from local ‘name’ expert baker? Check.
Lightly toasted bun to ensure structural integrity? Check.
Toasted in beef dripping, no less? Double check.
Proper meat- here, both Welsh and rare breed Longhorn? Check.
Smashed patty? Check.
Touch of pink? Check.
Imaginative but unwanky toppings? Check.
But this is more than just trendy box-ticking. More than just a collection of buzzwords with little to back them up.
Messy, mucky and sloppy: fine qualities in a burger- perhaps less so in a heart surgeon- This is not a menu which has been written without knowing which buttons to press.
Unlike me, Hoof has become leaner since the move. Only in choice: whereas you had your choice of six, such as ‘Dirty’, ‘Sweaty’, ‘Mighty’ and so on (not a not-remotely-topical game of ‘What would it be fun to call the Spice Girls for their return?’), fat is key here, whether it’s in the right amount in the patty mix, or the fries’ bone marrow gravy. Four core burgers, four fries. (No vegetarian option, of which more later.)
When they started I liked them, a lot. I just felt that a few tweaks would secure them as undisputed rulers, and thankfully they’ve done just that.
The most important change has been the shift from custom-made pre-formed patties to smashing, which was my main reservation with the original form.
What you sacrifice in convenience you reap in flavour, and it’s what tips Hoof over the edge into unmissable category.
(The science is fascinating. Smashing ensures the Maillard reaction has the maximum area on which to work, building that crust and making little inlets which harbour flavour on the broken edges of the patty. In other words, smashing ‘makes meat more meaty’. Check out J. Kenji López-Alt on this, via Serious Eats and his ‘Burger Lab’ series.)
These burgers know when to stop. No vertiginous tower with triple onion rings, no pulled ocelot meat or dodo tail plumage: nothing just for show.
They also do a fine job of embodying the venue’s name. Touches like liver pate and a mushroom duxelle would be something you’d find in a beef wellington. To find it in a burger is unexpected but these are burgers reimagined with a true Chef’s eye.
Without stooping to dreary vegan-baiting clickbait, Hoof is about as vegan-friendly as the cover art for Euros Childs’ Chops- ask your parents- and I admit I rather admire their commitment to doing one thing and one thing only. Beef. There’s no chicken, let alone fake meat or vegetable patties. I rather like that single-mindedness, and non meat-eaters have plenty to tempt only feet away.
If the current South Wales benchmark is Brecon’s HILLS, these are the best I’ve found within an hour of the capital.
Tip: never, ever go with someone who is coming off a month of no bread and no booze. There’s a good chance they’ll claw your face off for Hoof, or for a kebab from Leyli Joon & Co’s Bab Haus.
Where to start? Lamb shawarma? I’d describe it as a sultry tangle if I didn’t have form for that kind of thing: it’s what happens when you leave a whole shoulder in the Green Egg for six hours, then give it another 4 in a low oven, until it is collapsing in on itself in a riot of fat and flesh and flavour.
The brined pork in the Texas BBQ, with its finger-long sliced of pressed, fried and glazed flesh? That’s eminently memorable.
But the chicken? Ah the chicken… that’s nothing short of superb.
How to eat it? That’s the only problem here. It’s up to you, of course, though both methods have their drawbacks. I pick up each piece of chicken separately, missing out on the ‘roll, wrap and devour’ strategy, savouring that crunch as that coating shatters under your teeth, giving way to thighs which almost want to make me reach for terms like succulent, even if not the dreaded moist.
It’s a Welsh-Persian chef pairing her influences and points of contact between different traditions and ending up with something which I claimed on first eating is one of the most interesting dishes in the city. It’s not dainty, it’s not subtle. It’s designed to make a big impact quickly, on its own merits as street food must, not to form an integral component of some intricate tasting menu experience. On its debut I called it ‘the best Korean fried chicken in Cardiff right now’ and I’ve not had a single mouthful since then which has made me pause for reconsideration. You could call it ‘bloody brilliant.’ I did.
These are high-definition sauces, whether it’s the coriander and green chilli of the zhoug or the heat of the sriracha mayo. It’s a culinary orgy. It’s heady stuff which will demand repeat visits: to stretch the Sticky Fingers motif a little, Leyli is Cardiff’s Sister Morphine.
Brother Thai sticky beef has established itself as a Cardiff classic. It’s the details which count: the pickled cucumber, the ajat light pickle, the fresh herbs, and meat feels like it’s been coaxed rather than just ‘cooked’, piled into a flaky, buttery bread. It’s a handful of joy: imaginatively spiced, generously loaded with herbs and a double hit of sriracha in sauce and mayonnaise.
It’s easy to understand why this is always one of the most sought-after dishes at any street food event: just look for the longest queues.
At Anand George’s Tukka Tuk, the samosa chaat is always popular, a vividly-flavoured place where spiced chickpeas meet tamarind and pomegranate and yoghurt dressing their pea and potato samosa. Our choice sees spiced coconut dusted over Bombay fries, teamed with delicately pickled cabbage and carrot coleslaw in his Keralan fried chicken. There’s no mistaking the starring role: it’s all about the chicken. Impeccable cooked, beautifully spiced, the vegetables no mere token.
That meat is dredged through telltale southern Indian blend of curry leaf and green chilli and ginger, the crunch boosted with cracked coriander and fennel seeds. It’s always fun to introduce something you love to a friend. Eyes light up. That’s the one. That’s the one. It’s yet another helping of a dish which never fails to draw the crowds.
It’s not just the high standard of the stalls here which makes it essential. It’s the lack- and here’s my key point- of any weak link. You can have larger collections of stalls. You could have more ‘choice.’ But I have rarely known a similar setup without a couple of disappointments. And that includes some of the biggest names in London street food, your KERBs and StreetFeasts and your Market Halls. At each one I’ve found some staggeringly good street food, from the best hot dogs I’ve ever eaten via beautiful flatbreads and smoked USDA short rib and pickled chilles, but more than a smattering of underwhelming servings.
Every one’s a winner here. Sticky Fingers has been refined and evolved to cherry-pick the top names from South Wales’ burgeoning street food ecosystem- more, it has attracted able Chefs on a fine streak of form. So when I’m asked for visitor recommendations, am I going to urge friends from Bristol or Birmingham or London, cities with an embarrassment of riches, to visit? Local pride dictates they are steered towards the likes of Asador 44 or Milkwood, Heaney’s or Dark, The Heathcock or Paysan or Nook, places of that ilk. Well, Sticky Fingers is now on that list: it not only does what it does better than anywhere else locally, but it offers dishes of genuine quality which show the city’s food in a glowing light.
These are Chefs we should be proud to have working in our city, and here they are cooking at such an accessible level too. You can get a hit of what John or Anand and Leyli do and it won’t cost you £40 plus for dinner- though you’d be well advised to go for that at some point.
That’s a formidable collection under the same roof, at time of writing: the best burger in town, the sheer mucky, gutsy pleasures of Leyli’s kebabs, Brother Thai’s prize-winning roti and Anand George’s mastery of spicing. It’s like a greatest hits compilation but without those two new tracks which serve only to show the band’s best days are long behind them. This line up could be forgiven for cranking out the same schtick week in week. It’s to their credit they continue to tweak and adjust and improve. (Minor niggles, for the sake of balance- could the bar do with more local brewer presence? Yes. You want us to have sticky fingers, so perhaps some rolls of kitchen towel on each table. Please?)
It’s tempting to post a mini review of this place with: Fat bloke wanders in. Fat bloke eats lots. Repeats, many times. Fat bloke drinks a bit. Fat bloke loves it. The end. Claiming to be a ‘foodie’ in Cardiff (and honestly, why would you admit to that?) and not being interested in what’s happening at Sticky Fingers is a bit like making cockle ice cream. It’s doubtless possible; but people will look at you as if you’re odd- which, in a perfect world, is how people would regard anyone who goes around telling others that they are ‘a foodie.’
The original Sticky Fingers was the first studio album the Stones recorded entirely without their original driving force, Brian Jones. They had to reinvent, to develop, to stay ahead.
They followed it what many consider their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. You wouldn’t bet against our version finding ways to top what is already a very impressive collection.
Sticky Fingers Street Food
BAR: Mon-Thurs 4-11pm; Fri 4pm-12am; Sat 11am-12am; Sun 11am-11pm
FOOD: Thurs and Friday 4-10pm; Sat and Sunday 11am-10pm
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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.