Leños & Carbón (London, UK)

My brother has a bit of an odd hobby, but with a good cause. London is quite multi-ethnic, and unfortunately, various right-wing sources claim that large stretches of London are now “Islamic No-Go zones” where police don’t tread and roving bands of religious police enforce Sharia law. The concept is laughably incorrect, and is what I believe most journalists would call “bull”. But my brother’s hobby is visiting these alleged zones and checking them out, often while enjoying an alcoholic beverage and perhaps some pork while at it. So when I was visiting, he decided to take a walk to one such falsely-identify no-go zone, Elephant and Castle.

It’s long been a London crossroads, and it’s basically a large bus hub, a major Tube stop, and the site of a rather sad and forlorn late 1960s shopping centre that supposedly is going to be demolished any year now, but some how hangs on. What it definitely isn’t is a no-go zone. And, after a walking trip involving the Imperial War Museum, some light shopping at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre (which is practically a 1975 time capsule), we were going to head to the nearby “box park” (London thing: pop-up shopping centre made out of shipping containers) to visit Marcel and Sons to try out some Mauritian food (and compare it to the related food over on Réunion).

There was just one little problem: the box park, and Marcel and Sons with it, closed in December 2018, two weeks earlier. So, after a quick shopping trip to the nearby Asian grocery, we instead picked another well-reviewed local restaurant: Leños & Carbón.

Leños & Carbón is one of those neat little London architectural spaces inhabiting what used to be a fairly industrial railway arch converted into a rather spacious, arching restaurant space located directly below the Elephant and Castle rail station. That neighborhood is basically a little Colombia, with several Columbian restaurants (Leños & Carbón, The Colombian next door), a bakery (La Chatica) and a tapas bar (La Bodeguita) all within about 200 feet of each other (and, going south, a handful of Ecuadoran and Dominican places as well). And being a Colombian restaurant, it adds to the much needed Latin American culinary scene as well (England not having much colonial presence resulted in less migration from these countries to the UK).

The menu at Leños & Carbón is a pretty good combination of traditional Colombian fare (realizing myself that it had been several years since my last Colombian restaurant visit, Maria’s Cafe in Minneapolis) and other Latin American fare as well. A combination of empanadas, arepas, and fried plantains as appetizers, and main courses of roasted chicken, seasoned steaks, pork belly, or chicarrones. Almost everyone at the table ended up going for the Bandeja Paisa (The “Paisa Platter”, after one of Colombia’s regions), basically a combo platter of red kidney beans, rice, minced beef, Colombian chorizo, fried egg, fried ripe plantain, pork belly, avocado and rustic corn bread.

Yup, that’s a lot of food. However, I rather enjoyed the execution. The stars were on two distinct ends of the spectrum: one end being the red kindey beans were a really rich, well-herbed, and fragrant soup-like pot of beans, absolutely perfect for eating with a bit of the meat or sausage. The other end of the spectrum was the pork belly: carefully scored across one side and deep-fried, this was a rich, well-seasoned, smoky, and perfectly crisped-up bit of pork belly. Each bite could then be paired with a bit of everything else on the plate: a decent fried egg, a bit of plantain, some well-crisped and very piquante chorizo, or some rice. If there was a weak spot, it was the minced beef, but even that was flavorful with some of the house-made salsa or chimichurri.

So, while our efforts at Mauritian food were foiled (admittedly, that’s a rare niche cuisine!), we had an enjoyable and flavorful lunch from Leños & Carbón. I wouldn’t hesitate to return and try some steak or roasted chicken on a future visit.

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