Cardiff Market and food have always been inseparable. The late-Victorian building, built on the former site of Cardiff gaol- the gallows were near the St Mary St entrance- opened in 1891, and for some it has been their home for the duration. Others, like butchers JT Morgan, predate even that, trading on the site when it was a farmers’ market and maintaining an unbroken succession of family owned and run trade since 1861: iconic fishmongers Ashtons joined them here five years later and have never left.
The Ashtons pot of cockles is one of the definitive Cardiffian snacks, of course, best eaten while standing at that little shelf, and with Sarsons and white pepper: you’re not a barbarian, are you now? (If you want to take it up a level, combine it with a slab of corned beef pie from The Market Deli, here since 1906, for a combo a friend calls ‘Market Surf and Turf’.)
It’s places like these which make the Market an unmatched resource for the home cook. Come to Ashtons for samphire, for crevettes and hulking whole crab; for plump, glistening scallops with their coral roes intact, for whole turbot. Get your fruit and veg at Yeates’ or Sullivans and your daily bread from, yes, The Bread Stall: pick up your spices at Clancy’s (their chilli portfolio is prodigious, from Trinidad Douglah and Guajillo to Arbol and Cascabel, and from Wiri Wiri to Kashmiri and Fatalii to Pequin and Red Savina: Ericka Duffy, who knows a thing or ten about this stuff, tells me this range is unmatched in most British cities. Mediterranean Foods stock more olives than you can shake one of their baklava at, along with Turkish Delight in jewel colours; Blackmore’s butcher is especially good for those less fancied cuts which carry so much flavour, tripe and heart and tongue.
Through all this, the Market remains proudly, essentially, a Market: where stalls will sell you Hoover bags and tin openers and Afro hair products and hangover smoothies and knitting yarn and secondhand books.
But this isn’t a shopping guide. This is where to eat while you’re here.
While other ‘street food’ venues in the city have run a little stale, struggling to match highpoints they set years ago, Cardiff Market has become home to a new breed of impressive operators.
Some are experienced restaurateurs diversifying into more casual menus: others are street food specialists who have done the hard yards shuttling from pop up to festival and back again until the Market brought them home. All bring something distinctive: there are levels of quality and choice here unimaginable even a couple of years ago. I’m old enough to remember when the Market was where you went for a £1 hotdog and a cuppa at the corner caff: now you’ve got seasonal menus.
Underpinning this new breed are the fixtures, businesses which have sustained Cardiffians in their droves: The Bullterrier (‘Salad. Breakfast. Pie’l upstairs will sort you out with a roast dinner, while Shan’s, Celtic Corner, Sage (try the Cubano) and their ‘Smashed’ burger stall (a handmade double patty for less than your BK Whopper) and more sit on the ground floor, where The Tea Pot Café has, among other things, a dedicated chips menu.
You can only admire a menu which so enthusiastically embraces a theme.
Sweet tooth? Treats galore. Kreme of Cardiff is on the ground floor, as is Cardiff Bakestone (po0ular for Wrlsh cakes, and their cherry and rhubarb slice, is according to BBC Cymru’s Elliw Mai, ‘Crack in cake form’). Look out for Naked Vegan, who have moved downstairs from their balcony unit a space now occupied by Tukka Tuk Canteen. We’ll come back to that.
A word of caution: don’t get trampled underfoot by the stampede of social media types rushing upstairs for that perfect ‘lunch in outstretched hand with the ground floor in the background’ Balcony shot, though: hey, let’s be careful out there. The future burden on the NHS as it budgets for thousands of ‘influencer’ knee replacements will be prodigious.
With that in mind, let’s crack on…
Come here for (wait for it…) tacos. Wash them down with one of their imported Jarritos sodas (lime, mandarin, pineapple, grapefruit and cola). These are punchy little portions: the car it’s and the vegan ‘Let’s Avo Cwtch’ crispy avocado is well known locally, but try the fish: that batter is exemplary.
My pick The crispy fish taco. That gin and tonic tempura? Impeccable. (And gluten free, as are all the tacos).
Good to know If you like cooking Mexican at home, Bearded Taco can help: they display and sell a range of tortilla presses, Mexican hot sauces and salsas, blue or white harina de maíz, Mexican dried chilies…you get the picture. Some very limited seating is available at the stall.
Come here for… filled hirata buns. The menu here is exclusively vegan, filling lightly steamed hirata buns with ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ and always popular. Currently, there are no GF options.
My pick It’s a small menu- bowl or bao- and all vegan, so you’ll work your way through it quickly enough. And then go back to start all over again.
Good to know… Husband and wife team Nick and Karolina have built this into one of South Wales’ most popular street food brands, growing a loyal following at street food markets, festivals and popups. The ‘beef’ and ‘pork belly’ are crispy seitan and textured vegetable protein (TVP) respectively.
Come here for… Italian-influenced street food. This is proudly unauthentic but satisfying stuff. Italian-accented, paying affectionate homage to the spirit of favourites, but really- it’s carbs, isn’t it? Loads and loads of lovely, buttery, cheesy carbs.
My pick try their crisp little butter-golden (and GF) gnocchi, slathered with mushroom or beef ragú. If it’s on, have the Chicken Milanese- crisp, breaded chicken and hot sauce over tagliatelle. Authentic? No. Tasty? Oooof yes.
They make the effort to import vegetarian Grana Padano cheese wheels for their trademark dish. Try the gnocchi with their mushroom ragú, which is also available in a vegan version.
Good to know Husband and wife Rhys and Laura Keogh, wanting a change from the all-consuming restaurant life at La Pentola, started Dirty Gnocchi with stints at Sticky Fingers and Corporation Yard and hold popular popup events across the city which showcase Rhys’ cheffier side. Some dedicated seating is available.
Come here for… Greek street food. Souvlaki, gyros (‘yeeros’), psomaki.
The Merida platter (£11) breaks the unwritten Market ‘ten pounds max’ rule: that’s a bold move but it’s a substantial thing. You won’t see ‘Yeeros’ on vertical spits, but chicken or pork shoulder sliced thinly and griddled to order, finished with lemon and their spice blend. Their distinctive pita, at its best soaked with grilled pork juices, is imported from Mani in Greece: details count.
My pick- Psomaki calamari: a lightly toasted soft white roll stuffed with fries and battered squid. As simple and as good as it sounds. Oh, and the Baklava cheesecake. Try the pork shoulder ‘yeeros’, and that grilled bread gently oozing with meat juices.
Good to know… Owner Antonis ‘Antony’ Alexandris opened Ya! In partnership with the owners of Cathays’ Corfu By Night. Over a long career cooking all over the world, he has cooked for Spain’s Reina Sofia and worked as private chef to Uri Geller.
Come here for… South American-influenced street food. Don’t pigeonhole Nöglu as ‘The gluten-free place’, because this is too good for that. No gluten is used anywhere in this kitchen, though, so anyone can eat here in confidence.
My pick The Reina Pepiada arepa (stuffed with chicken and avocado) or empanadas (‘like a cross between a crispy taco and a pastie’) served with pico de gallo. Both are available in vegan alternatives (plantain and black bean arepas and refried bean empanadas). Some limited seating at the stall.
Good to know Reina Pepiada (‘Polka dot queen) was named after Susana Duijm, the first Venezuelan to win Miss World in 1955.
Come here for… Thai favourites. Red and green curries, massaman, pad krapow, panang, Tom Yum… I don’t know about you but in my corner of the world, anywhere you can eat Thai food at 10am is A Good Thing. A Very Good Thing.
Now in their eighth year, this tiny kitchen knocks out an extensive menu including a few vegetable stir fries (pad thai, cashew nut) and some salads. Curries are all gluten free. The most expensive items are £7.50. And as they say, ‘Everything comes with rice’.
My pick Chicken panang, grilled pork moo ping, stir-fried basil with prawns.
Good to know… Take it away like many do, or find a seat upstairs: if you’re lucky, perch on one of the few seats round the back and watch the kitchen at work. How they produce what they do in such a small space is remarkable: you’ll often spot of the team prepping on a little shelf outside.
Some downstairs stalls (eg Dirty Gnocchi) have dedicated seating, but it’s likely you’ll end up here, on the tables which run the length of the balcony.
Come here for… pizza, as that busy oven knocks out scores of Neapolitan-style pizza with its airy heat-spotted crust. A core menu of twelve pizzas, plus any specials, this is many pizza-watchers’ favourite Cardiff spot. What makes them even more remarkable is their pricing: the menu starts at just over a fiver and tops out at nine pounds. How they do it is a mystery, when others charge a lot more : but let’s be very glad they do.
My pick ‘Jiawl Bach’: This ‘Little Devil’ adds spicy salami and chillies to tomato sauce, mozzarella; there’s a touch of Spain (always guaranteed to raise the tone) in the ‘Sobrasada’, which balances Mallorcan spreadable chorizo with raw Welsh honey. The £5.50 Marinara is one of the city’s great cheap eats.
Eight of the regular menu are meat-free. No GF options at this location. There’s some dedicated seating: Ffwrnes is typically one of the busiest vendors but it’ll be worth the wait.
Good to know: Ieuan Harry and Jeremy Phillips are also the men behind Pontcanna’s New York style by-the-slice joint West, reviewed here. Different style, same consistently high quality. Some dedicated seating available, too.
Come here for… a frequently-rotating menu of Polish dumplings handmade in front of you. There’s always plenty for vegetarians and vegans. A mix of traditional Polish and more innovative fillings – try duck with plum sauce, Polish white sausage and garlic topped with bacon, or baked sunflower seed pâté and cranberries. Ample choice for vegetarians, though no GF at present.
My pick A couple of weeks ago, I’d have said duck with plum sauce u. If they have the beef brisket with peppercorn sauce, sell a kidney to get some. And if see any of them with wild mushroom sauce, don’t wait to be asked twice. The menu changes seasonally (imagine reading that sentence about the Market five years ago…)
Good to know Owner Chris Orzechowska used to run Broadway’s much-missed Polish restaurant My Place (now the lovely South Kitchen), and also has the Kreme Of Cardiff patisserie here on the ground floor.
Come here for…distinctive Keralan-influenced street food from Wales’ leading Indian chef. Anand George revolutionised and redefined South Wales’ understanding of what ‘Indian’ food can be. Here, in partnership with Rupali Wagh, he sets the local standard for Southern Indian street food. The menu covers everything from light snacks to substantial meals, to a maximum of £10.
My pick Their biggest seller, the KFC (£10), is one of the few truly iconic dishes to come out of the whole Cardiff Street food boom: one of the few perennially popular, instantly recognisable dishes to rank alongside Brother Thai’s sticky beef roti and Meat and Greek’s souvlaki. It is also, inarguably, one of the finest ways you can spend a tenner in Cardiff, Market or no Market. A complex marinade and a triple-fried process gives it an unmistakable texture.
Try the ‘Build Your Bowl’ with Keralan matta wholegrain rice, coconut mung bean dal and crisp cauliflower kempu, or the beef short rib curry topped with chilli prawns. Most of the menu is gluten-free, with only the snack menu exempt, though fryers are shared.
Good to know: Come prepared with the loyalty app Embargo on your phone and claim a stamp for every £5 spent. (You can also use it at Hard Lines coffee downstairs.)
You can order the Build Your Bowl toppings (chilli prawns, cauli or KFC) as little standalone servings, as well as the snacks and chai menu. Naked Vegan’s move downstairs means there is dedicated seating for Tukka Tuk Canteen customers only.
Tukka Tuk Canteen will shortly open on Whitchurch Road. Expect an expanded South Indian and Sri Lankan-influenced menu, from ‘short eats’ to mains.
These stalls represent the Market’s reinvention as a major casual dining destination.
Given the breadth and depth of experience and talent here, it’s hard to see that changing any time soon: finally, the capital has the major street food attraction it deserves.
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.