Friday 24 September 2010

The Meatwagon, British Street Food - the quest for a great burger in London

There's a lot of hype about The Meatwagon. In many ways, it's deserved. Yianni Papoutsis is making some of the best burgers in London, in a style which is as close to my spiritual burger of worship at the Shake Shack in New York as can be found this side of the Atlantic. Yianni's burgers have been inspired by his travels around the USA, sampling all that its street food scene has to offer - and it shows.

But I waited OVER 2 HOURS for it. Out in the OPEN AIR. For a burger. And not even a Shake Shack burger with amazing fries and a salted caramel milk shake on the side.

The facts: I queued for around 30-40 minutes to place my order (having arrived 10 minutes after opening). Many, many people who joined the queue just after me missed out. They waited about an hour to find out - although it was surely obvious to The Meatwagon crew much earlier that the last 30-50 people were likely queuing for an hour in vain. It's one thing to queue and be rewarded (I've done it before - happily - at Shake Shack), but quite another for it to be a complete waste of time. I can't help but suspect The Meatwagon doesn't mind this - it adds to the hype afterall. However, the whole scenario gave rise to many unhappy punters who I am sure will not be queuing for the privilege again. What I didn't realise was that I would still have to wait nearly 2 hours after placing my order at The Meatwagon to have a burger in my grips. By this time, it was almost 10pm.

At least we had some entertainment, and beers to ease the pain.

Was it worth the wait?

Well, sort of. Certainly, for a burger fanatic, if you're one of the privileged few to score a burger. And if you're in good company to keep you entertained while your stomach feasts on your inner organs.

The burger is excellent and scores points for USA style authenticity. The knobbly, juicy (but crumbly on the outside) beef patty is nestled inside a toasted sourdough bun (Yianni has apparently worked with a baker to perfect the right recipe). The mix is completed with fresh crispy iceberg lettuce, red onion, melted cheese, ketchup and French's mustard - all of which work in perfect proportion and harmony for around £5. However, my burger was outrageously over-salted in parts and there was far too much butter on the bun - melted butter was dripping furiously onto my lap at one point and the taste of it was overwhelming at times. I haven't heard these complaints before, so perhaps they were a freak occurence - the foundations for a good thing were clearly there.

Others would agree - The Meatwagon recently won the British Street Food Award for Best Sandwich (2010).

The delay can (perhaps) partly be explained by the cooking method - the meat is placed on a very hot grill, squashed down to perfect patty size, flipped and then 2 wonderful slices of American style cheese are placed on top where they melt gloriously during the grilling process. The patty is also steamed under a metal dome over the grill during the process. Only a limited number of burgers can fit on the grill at once, and the process (it seems) is not to be hurried.

Would I do it again? Probably not. Not unless the van rolled up to the end of my street and threw me a bone to gnaw on during the wait. I understand why South Londoners have taken The Meatwagon to their hearts - particularly as it is usually positioned closer to home for them. However, I will not go out of my way for it again unless I overcome my sneaking suspicions that these guys are slightly taking the piss out of their customers - the "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" school of thought has never been one that works on me.

Particularly when it's almost faster to fly to New York and have a guarantee of the world's best burger with sides to go.

The Meatwagon moves around and, when I visited, it was one of the street food vendors (including the fantastic Brewed Boy coffee trolley and the delicious Choc Star van) present at the Eat St event near the Towpath Cafe. After my burger, I feasted on some superb chocolate truffles and rocky road by Choc Star which I highly recommend. Brewed Boy's coffee is a personal favourite - you can find him on Rupert St, Soho during the working week. You can check The Meatwagon's website for its next location.


  1. An interesting read. I have had my suspicions about the hype surrounding the meat wagon. I haven't visited yet but I don't think I will now.

    I agree with you about shake shack though. Well worth the wait. The burger was excellent.

  2. As if seeing it that night and not having it wasn't bad enough I have to re-live the experience on here. =p

    When in the past I was successful in grabbing a Meatwagon burger mine suffered from being under-seasoned, so maybe a bit of work to do there.

    I definitely wouldn't wait that long for a burger (or no burger) again, but wondering if it was a bit of a one off as my friend went to Highgate this week and didn't have to wait long at all. Maybe we did badly due to it being the first East London visit.

    No burger or not it was a fun evening though and nice to be reminded of that band, that snap captures them perfectly.

  3. The Emperor, my lovely, is wearing no clothes.

    This is a mobile burger van selling, by some accounts, very good burgers. But it has been so over-hyped - and burger fanatics are so, well, fanatical - that demand far outstrips supply and their ability to service even some of this demand has been proven to be completely inadequate. Yours is not the first post I've read which has described the Meatwagon's operators (or whoever's running the pub/event they're at) allowing people to queue for insane amounts of time without any warning that they will not get a burger. Sure, I think the people queuing are complete mugs to do so, but if you know you only have say fifty burgers to sell, you count the first fifty people in the queue and tell everyone else to go home.

    Let me say this again - IT IS JUST A BLOODY BURGER VAN. The sooner people stop treating it like the Second frickin' Coming, the sooner the queues will die down and the remaining faithful might, just might, actually get their burger.

  4. It looks like something of an experience, but the whole idea of queuing for a couple of hours for a burger really puts me off.

    I'm hoping the hype dies down after a while and take the long queues with it. I would like to try the burger, i've heard so many great (the burger) and terrible (the wait, missing a burger) reports of the experience that I am very intrigued. But maybe, as you have intimated, that is all part of the plan...

    How did it stack up next to the ESI burger?

  5. I'm with Hugh on this one.
    I don't doubt that it's a bloody fantastic burger - I trust the opinions of many of those who have said so.
    But, I'm sorry, I wouldn't wait for 3 hours, outside, in a queue, for Noma or any other OMGit'sthebest food experience anyone cares to nominate.
    And I agree 100% on the poor customer service shown by letting people wait for an hour when it's easy to avoid - since you can't assume what those in the queue will order, how many burgers etc, have a friend go through the queue, from front to back, checking what people want and ticking it off on a list so that you can work out where the cut off is and let anyone behind that in the queue know straight away, they're out of luck. How hard is that?
    Putting hype and buzz before treating people with common courtesy sucks.

  6. Thankfully I live fairly near to the industrial estate in Peckham they're often at on Friday lunchtimes. Every time I've been there have been at most 2 people ahead of me in the queue so I've never had to wait more than a few minutes and have experienced nothing but good friendly customer service.

    I've never queued up at a pub for one before as I've read similar reports about how long it takes.

    It is the best burger I've had in London but I agree that a 2 hr wait (and I'd apply that to any restaurant too) is way too long to get fed. If people are happy to though, good for them.

    The whole operation reminds me a bit of the soup Nazi episode in Seinfeld - people quueing up and willing to forgo what they'd normally think acceptable as the product is so good. Although I've never heard Yianni shout 'NO BURGER FOR YOU'

  7. I hear so much about The Meatwagon but travelling out to it and waiting two hours just puts me off. I love my food but I am also lazy hehe. NYC trip coming up in Feb 2011 so Shake Shack it is WITH CARAMEL SHAKE!

  8. hugh, do you remember when you were SO aghast when I told you my shoes cost me £4, and you told me all abut your Calvin Klein / Westwood / whatever brogues? Well they're ONLY FRICKIN' SHOES. Diff'rent strokes and all that.

    Sorry you had a long, horrible and fruitless wait, Carly. I don't feel I can really comment as I count Yianni as a friend, but they really have taken steps to try and cut the wait down; perhaps just not enough.

  9. Great post. I am saddened to hear of the wait and lack of customer service because I have really wanted to try their food. Like all the others, I don't think I will bother.

  10. Grubworm - ESI's burger still holds my heart but this was a different animal and mighty was fine (wait aside) - particularly for 5 quid.

    Catty - I can't wait to hear what you think of Shake Shack.

    Thanks all for your comments. Love the Seinfeld reference, Patrick!


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