El Vergel

I was asked to write a short review of our favourite local cafe for our square’s newsletter. I thought I’d share it here!

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I first discovered El Vergel, a South American café bar on Great Suffolk Street when I was working nearby. Serving speedy and delicious tacos and empanadas to eat in or take away (as well as lots of other nice things) it’s a popular place with local office workers at lunchtime.

When we moved to Borough with our little girl Lexie, who is now almost 3, El Vergel went from being a nice and slightly different from the norm lunch spot to becoming a complete and total godsend for me! I’ve since run there many times to escape Peppa Pig and revive myself with coffee or to meet other adults who don’t howl at me because I cut the apple they requested ‘the wrong way’ or gave them the ‘wrong juice cup’ (THE LELLO ONE MUMMY NOT THE BLUE ONE). I’ll quickly caveat that I really love being a mum and I adore my daughter but it is bloody hard work… and so… back to the review!

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I’d say going to El Vergel is a perfect pick me up as the music, décor and staff are all South American – friendly, colourful and vibrant! It’s a light and airy industrial space (exposed concrete and pipes) juxtaposed with colourful murals and beautiful Mexican weavings, tapestries and baskets. There’s a good mix of large communal tables as well as tables for two and aside from the lunchtime rush, when it gets pretty busy, it never feels hectic. In fact I’d say it’s one of the few local cafes where I don’t worry about disturbing other customers because it’s so spacious. There are usually a few young professionals on laptops when we go and it never feels like we are sitting on top of them (or flicking avocado at them in Lexie’s case).

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El Vergel opens early in the morning (great when you’ve been up since 5 with a perky toddler who is bouncing off the walls) and has good coffee and fresh juices as well as a lovely healthy breakfast menu including huevos rancheros, chilli avocado tortillas and greek yoghurt with fruit, granola and agave. A particular highlight or luxury for me is getting to read one of the newspapers available while my daughter has her juice – the bliss! It’s also a very good café for a group – so in my case to meet up with other sleep deprived mums who appreciate the space, the high chairs, the section of fun bean bags for jumping on and the supply of pens to scribble on the walls (well our kids appreciate the pens). But I always see lots of groups of childfree people looking very happy here, especially on the weekend, enjoying the El Vergel brunch menu with the papers.

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Our favourite thing to eat is the churrasco palta or churrasco queso – an incredible steak sandwich served on a homemade bread roll with really good salsa and either ‘palta’ avocado or ‘queso’ cheese. Definitely order this if you go – it is delicious and very reasonable at under a fiver. The range of freshly baked empanadas is very good too. I like the ‘carne’ meat empanada best but the cheese empanadas are very popular with my friends (and kids!) – all come with a really good coriander salsa. There are also daily specials and if you ever see one that says chips go for it – the homemade chips are brilliant and I wish they would sell them as a side dish. I should also mention the really good cherry cheesecake, which is massive yet very easy to eat all of even though you when you get it you say ‘oh I’ll never manage all of that!’ El Vergel also serves lots of other things like tacos and fresh salads and the bar is licensed if you want a beer or a glass of wine. I’d love to go for a meal there in the evening but alas they shut at 4pm. I’d say my only bug bear with El Vergel are charges for some of the add ons (60p for a tiny bowl of ketchup etc). This aside it would be hard to find a friendlier, more colourful spot in SE1. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Mama Lan’s Beijing street food

We are BIG fans of Mama Lan’s. This teeny tiny restaurant next to Clapham Common serves the most delicious noodles and dumplings – Beijing street food to be precise. Ning Ma started Mama Lan’s as a Supper Club operating from her living room. Mama Lan is her mum who helps her cook and the food is what Ning Ma’s grandpa sold on his market stall in Beijing – recipes from her childhood living in China.

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Taking advantage of Lambeth Council’s scheme encouraging entrepreneurs to repopulate a run down part of Brixton market, Mama Lan’s opened up there, joining the cluster of new budget eateries doing wonderful things in this part of town. We’ve been to Brixton Mama Lan’s a few times but I prefer the Clapham one mainly because it’s not in a bustling market! We also go swimming once a week round the corner so this is the perfect lunch to look forward to!

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Lexie absolutely loves noodles so she’s very happy here. There are no high chairs and it does get busy at lunchtime but if you get there at 12 and your child can sit on a chair (or sleep in a buggy) you’ll be fine! We ordered the beef noodle soup – unctuous beef, silky noodles with a fragrant broth – we love this so much. They served the spicy chilli sauce on the side so we could share this with Little Miss Noodle. We also had the pork buns and beef and spring onion beijing dumplings – both absolutely delicious. These were fine for Lexie – no chilli – and the pickled vegetables that accompany the dumplings are sooo good. In the past we’ve had the pork and chinese leaf dumplings – I felt a little sad we didn’t get these 😦 They are super yum.

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The final thing we had was smacked cucumbers with chilli and sesame. I liked these a lot, they were refreshing and zingy and probably the only thing on the menu I’ll attempt at home. I’d have preferred a half portion – it’s quite a big bowl of cucumber to get through when really all you want is MORE DUMPLINGS. The waiter very sweetly brought Lexie a bowl of cucumber with no chilli so she could join in!

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We drank a lovely white tip Oolong tea and Lexie had juice but they are licensed and on other occasions I’ve had a refreshing Tsing Tsao beer! The menu isn’t long and caters to all tastes, spicy, not spicy, vegetarian noodles/dumplings. We will go back again and again and if you can you should go too. I’m really happy Mama Lan’s has joined the other success stories of Brixton Village and opened up in another location (like Franco Manca, Honest burgers – my favourite burgers in London for sure, ooh their thrice cooked chips with rosemary salt ooh!!). For all the info on opening times, location etc visit the Mama Lan’s website.