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You cannot eat well and cheaply in Oxford without heading out of town down the studenty Cowley Road. However, as I soldiered on to this cool, minimalist neighbourhood Thai (a 30-minute walk from central Oxford), I did wonder if it was going to be worth the shoe leather. Could those who rate Oli’s Thai as Oxford’s best restaurant be overegging it? Is Laddawan Thurston really turning out, as her fans insist, pin-sharp dishes for under £10, lunch and dinner?
The short answer is: get down here, even if you have to crawl over broken glass. Oli’s Thai lives up to the hype, and then some. From a short daily menu, which included sweet chilli prawns, aubergine curry, and chicken with garlic, pepper and coriander, I opted for a sensational plate of belly pork with rice. The compressed belly had been very slowly roasted to something approaching perfection. Despite the delicious crust at its edges, the meat was meltingly tender within, while its crackling was like lacquer. That crackling had been further smothered in a freshly-blitzed paste which – as is the Thai way – seemed to contain a 101 ingredients from across the chilli/ lemongrass spectrum. Two rectangles of this magnificent meat had been stacked in pool of “Oli’s sauce”, an electrifying soy-based broth, and each mouthful was a rollercoaster of hot, zingy, sweet and savoury flavours – but all in perfect harmony. The belly was £9.50, so I had to drink tap water to bring it in under budget, but it is well worth that sacrifice to eat such food.
A few seats around the bar are kept free for walk-ins, but book well ahead if you can (particularly at weekends). I squeezed in at midday on a Wednesday, but otherwise it was fully booked, as is the case most days judging from the phone calls. Despite this, the staff maintain an unruffled, chatty demeanour.
• Mains £6.50-£11. 38 Magdalen Road, 01865 790223, olisthai.com
St Giles Cafe
There has been a cafe on this site since 1937. Generations of students and dons have taken refuge here, to think or nurse a hangover behind its steamed-up windows (WH Auden was a fan). More recently, this tiny space was taken over by Mark Butcher, given a neat, retro makeover and a new foodie direction. The kitchen, for instance, makes its own breads and cures its own fish and is generally working hard to produce honest, affordable food.
The menu is populist (kedgeree, butternut squash salad, steak sandwich), while the daily specials include a few eclectic flourishes, such as Jamaican chicken stew with dumplings. St Giles’ own meaty Oxford sausages, made to an historic recipe using sage, lemon zest and winter savoury, are a seriously fragrant, peppery banger. They are fantastic on a breakfast sandwich or served with mash and gravy. As further entertainment, the paper placemats contain food-related philosophical quotes, with space to add your own. Only in Oxford.
• Breakfast £4-£9, sandwiches and light lunches £4.50-£5.50, lunch mains, £7-£8.50. 52 St Giles, 01865 554200, stgilescafe.com
The Covered Market
In the 2010 Oxford budget eats guide, I flagged up Pieminister and Fasta Pasta in the indoor market. Somehow I completely overlooked the brilliant, takeaway-only Alpha Bar (dishes £3.95-£4.90). It sells a selection of fresh, scratch-cooked stews (Kashmiri dhal, veggie chilli and more) and headline salad components (falafel, smoked mackerel, grilled halloumi), which you can pair with a bewildering selection of vegetables, further salads, sauces and toppings. A sample pot of venison and root vegetable stew was unusually accomplished, its quietly fruity flavour indicative of skilful deployment of juniper berries and red wine. It would easily have passed muster in a pub or restaurant. Here, it cost just £4.90.
I wasn’t quite as impressed with the popular cafe and takeaway, Sasi Thai (hot dishes £4.50-£5.95). The pad thai could have done with a sprinkling of crispy fried onions, coriander or toasted peanuts and its sauce needed a bit more fish paste complexity. Nonetheless, it was tasty and filling (the vegetables were al dente and its sweet tamarind dressing packed an authentic heat) and, crucially, only £4.50 to take away. On reflection I might have done better with the red beef curry, an intriguing dish of egg and pork in cinnamon, or the spicy chicken with basil. Ask the friendly staff for a recommendation.
• Market Street, oxford-coveredmarket.co.uk
The Natural Bread Company
On the (concrete-clad) face of it, Little Clarendon Street, a rather ugly 1960s cut-through from town into Jericho, is of little interest to the passing tourist. However, it is home to this cafe, a spin-off from one of Oxford’s best artisan bakeries. Displays of pain au levain and wild yeast sourdoughs, outsized buns and slices of far Breton prune cake, provide plenty of eye candy in this otherwise plain space. Breakfast and lunch dishes tend to pair great local ingredients (Willowbrook organic eggs, bacon from Sandy & Black rare-breed pigs) with those knockout breads.
From a short lunch menu of stews, salads and sandwiches, a sample tub of tomatoey, mixed vegetable soup was fantastic. Rigorously seasoned and thick with herbs, it had the depth of flavour that suggested someone had patiently sweated down a mountain of onions and celery in its preparation. On a wet freezing day it was just the ticket, the only downer being that the hunks of rustic Pugliese bread that came with it arrived toasted but unbuttered.
• Breakfast £2.75-£7.95, lunch £4.95-£5.95. 29 Little Clarendon Street, 01865 310022, naturalbreadcompany.co.uk
This simple bistro is a good place to recover over weekend brunch (eggs Benedict, corned beef hash, French toast) and also serves a great-value midweek lunch (two courses £7.95). The short menu might feature an onion and pea tortilla or a spicy vegetable broth, followed by warm chicken salad, 74’s organic burger or bubble ’n’ squeak with a poached egg. I was confused as to why my wild mushroom risotto arrived topped with a mound of leaves which were themselves sprinkled with parmesan, but the risotto itself was a creditable bit of cooking. A creamy plateful with a pleasantly peppery edge, the rice had retained the correct residual bite and, even if the mushrooms did not quite deliver a significantly autumnal, woodland flavour, a generous glug of white wine and decent stock had given the dish good depth. A sound track of sweet-natured US indie tunes completed the laid-back vibe.
• Two-course lunch £7.95, three £9.95. Brunch £5.95-£9.95. 74 Cowley Road, 01865 203374, door74.co.uk
Do you come over all misty-eyed at The A-Team theme tune? Or collect Star Wars action figures? No, me neither. Those who do, however, will love Atomic Burger, two nostalgic, Cowley-Road burger joints where every surface is covered in jigsaws, stuffed toys, posters and bric-a-brac on a sci-fi, 1980s pop, TV and superhero theme. Luckily, the burgers (the menu is huge) are far more up to date, without quite rivalling the quality found at Britain’s best new-wave burger specialists.
There was a lot to like in my Dead Elvis: the juicy patty had a good beef flavour and was nicely char-grilled (these things are not a given), the Swiss and plasticky US cheese worked well together, the bacon was stridently tasty and the super-sweet, gently fried onions were ace. In essence, it was a very enjoyable burger that would have hit the heights had it come on a brioche or sourdough bun, rather than on a somewhat dry, floury old-school number. Likewise, rather than gleaming and glossy, the chilli-dusted fries were a little tired. It was a sound burger but, to put it in Atomic Burger’s terms, it was more The Fall Guy than a classic like Knightrider.
• Burger meals £6.75-£10.95. 96 and 247 Cowley Road, 01865 790855, atomicburger.co.uk
Taste Tibet and other street food
Street food is still in its infancy in Oxford but a semi-regular programme of pop-ups, markets and weekly pitches is coalescing, which is boon for the budget traveller. Taste Tibet (£2-£5.50) has a pitch on Gloucester Green market, selling, on Wednesdays, homemade curries, soups and flatbreads, and on Thursdays steamed meat or vegetable momos (dumplings). A sample vegan cauliflower and carrot curry was light-stepping in its spicing and came with a thick lentil dhal that was earthy and warming, almost like Himalayan refried beans.
Taste Tibet is one of a number of traders – including the wood-fired Secret Pizza Society, fish and chip mobiler Goujon Monkey, and local baking legend Barefoot Kitchen – appearing at #BittenStreet, a series of street food markets organised by blogger-cum-events outfit Bitten Oxford. Bitten has two events coming up (Nov 27, North Parade Night Market, 27 November, and Oxford Castle Quarter on 20 December). Next year it plans to hold a street food market on the first Saturday of every month from March to October in the Oxford Castle Quarter.
Pizza connoisseurs will also be interested in Fundi. This star of London’s Kerb street food markets fires up its wood-fired pizza oven in the garden at the Library pub every Tuesday night (£5-£7). Meanwhile, well-regarded Pizza Artisan, which I did not get round to trying out – pitches up every evening opposite Christchurch College, to serve handmade, wood-fired pizzas from a converted Citreon H van (£6.50-£9).
With its table tennis tables, pop-up markets and late-nights DJs, this sprawling, quirkily decorated hangout is bringing a bit of east London cool to Cowley Road. At this point, it feels rather generic, but what Big Society lacks in originality it more than makes up for with its food. A menu of predictable “dude food” staples – wings, dogs, burgers – is lifted above the mundane by being, on this evidence, very, very good. A pulled pork sandwich was exemplary. Smoky but not overbearing, the pork was sopping with juices which were ably soaked up by a velvety soft, ultra-fresh brioche bun. Vinegar slaw and a few pickles provided the necessary sharp counterpoint, while the (often unbearably sweet) BBQ mayo was well-balanced. Big Society has a decent selection of craft beers, but, if you are watching the pennies, try its house pale ale (half £1.50), a bristly, dry-hopped beer from local brewery Shotover.
The people behind Big Society also own the Victoria in Jericho, a pub (“definitely not a gastropub”) whose homemade pies (£5.95-£7.95) have a good reputation. And while we’re on dude food, it is worth mentioning Joe Perks, a bar not far from Big Society, which serves hotdogs by London street food pioneer Big Apple (from £4.50). The dogs are sensational, but mine was served, bizarrely, like an open sandwich, on a pared-back piece of hotdog bun which meant you needed a knife and fork to eat it. Not a lot of use as a takeaway – and contrary to the whole spirit of the hotdog, you might say. I presumed they had run out of buns, but no, I was told, that is how Joe Perks serves its dogs. Weird.
• Meals £4.95-£9.95. 95 Cowley Road, 01865 792755, bigsocietyoxford.com
All flickering tea lights and calm order, this dark, wood-panelled Chinese restaurant is a soothing sanctuary from the outside world. Sojo prides itself on the authenticity of its Szechuan, Cantonese and Shanghai dishes which, on its sub-£10 afternoon menu (noon-5pm), include various rice or noodle bowls and dim sum. Even if you swerve such exotica as black bean tripe, chicken claws or the numbingly hot Szechuan shredded pork (“mind blowing spicy,” warns the menu), be prepared for food that makes little concession to prissy Western palates. Braised brisket, almost plummy with its five spice seasoning, arrives thick with wobbly nuggets of flavour-packed fat and less-digestible strips of connective sinew. It tastes great but requires plenty of chewing and picking through.
• Afternoon menu £7-£11. 6-9 Hythe Bridge Street, 01865 202888, sojooxford.co.uk
“Never mind the décor,” reads the headline on a local newspaper cutting tacked up by the till, “the food’s great.” On an unlovely strip opposite Oxford station, Dosa Park is so basic you could easily mistake it for a fried chicken shop. Lucky, then, that it delivers such colour on the plate.
The broadly South Indian menu takes in dhals, curries, idlis, vada and, of course, the eponymous, crèpe-like dosas. Griddled to order, the dosa itself was soft and pliable, as delicate as lace at its edge. The first thing I bit into, in the lamb masala filling, was a whole cardamom pod – a sign of the elegantly seasoned things to come. Both the potato and lamb had been cooked precisely and had great flavour – as did the accompanying sambar. It looked off-puttingly pale, but some alchemy in the kitchen with mustard seeds, curry leaves and chillies had turned this lentil broth into a transcendent winter warmer. Likewise, the accompanying coconut chutneys looked a shade oily, but were ineffably light. One was a cooling balm, but the darker orange chutney packed a heat that grew and grew into a sinus-clearing endorphin high. South Indian food may be renowned for its sensitive spicing, but this was a reminder that chillies first spread from Portugal through Indian, via Goa.
• Meals around £5-£7. 25 Park End Street, 01865 791197, dosapark.com
Travel between Manchester and Oxford was provided by Cross Country Trains (crosscountrytrains.co.uk). For more on Oxford, see visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com
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