Soho. A magic word for a couple of centuries, a place for sin and sophistication, for commerce and crime (sometimes indistinguishable) and for food and late-night entertainment. The food is what took us there, another eating tour, but the rest is all around, if in more gentrified forms.
The 'Gardener's Hut' in Soho Square was built to hide an electricity station; in World War II, a bomb shelter was excavated underneath it.
We are talking London, of course, not the various ‘Sohos’ that have popped up in hopes of taking on some of the fame, including New York’s, which can at least claim that it is SOuth of HOuston Street. The name’s magic enough to have also taken root in Buenos Aires, Tasmania, Hong Kong, Wangjing, Birmingham, Tampa and possibly more.
Lots of famous people have lived in Soho; Snow is the physician who first proved that untreated sewage was the cause of London's cholera epidemics.
But back to the food. Because of its history and its changing and eclectic mixes of people, Soho is a mix of many foods, many cultures. We decided the best way in, and the most fun, was to join a small-group evening walking tour, this one run by EatingLondon. We’d already taken another with them in the East End.
We met the tour under the marquee of the theatre currently occupied by the hugely successful play that extends the Harry Potter franchise into the profitable and possibly never-ending future.
Our first stop was nearby at La Bodega Negra, a sort of updated and trendy tacqueria that calls its menu “street and beach food.” We had an assortment of small tacos with a fascinating twist: instead of the typical corn-based taco shells, Bodega Negra used thinly-sliced jicama. A frame holds them steady while being filled…and ready to eat. Shell and fillings, especially al pastor pork, were wonderful.
The Soho tour is an 18-and-up only tour, because drinks are part of almost all the stops. At Bodega Negra, that meant a frozen margarita (small!). I’m not a fan of frozen (visions of horrid sweet stuff in ridiculously long glasses at the beach), but this was well worth the exception.
The restaurant is a two-faced production that runs through the block. The other entrance pays homage to Soho’s past and present with a lurid sex-shop décor. Yes, we were told, they do sometimes have to explain to embarrassed people that no, it’s not really a peep show.
Our second stop, nearby but not easy to get to because of huge construction sites for London’s next-generation underground line, was the London Gin Club at the Star Cafe. Upfront: Gin has never been my drink, and the idea of combining it with nearly-flavorless tonic water has carried no appeal. I was not looking forward to this stop, except because it included one of my favorites: a pie, rich in meat, sauce and vegetables, and so what if it claims to be “ginfluenced.”
Well, the pie was indeed beautiful and tasty, but I also learned a thing or two about Gin and Tonic. Namely that it makes a big difference what gin, and especially what tonic. I’m not getting paid for the plug, but the tonic used there is incredible, with a light botanical flavor, hint of orange, and if I have to have it with gin in it, so be it. Or, I could drink it without. Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water. Back in New York, I tried another gin and tonic, from a good bar, and it’s just not the same.
Sounds almost like night done and time for dessert? Appetizers, main and two cocktails? Well, not by a long shot!
Onward to Enrique Tomas, a Spanish company with an English outpost, where we tasted several varieties of Spanish ham. The samples came with a placement showing where in Spain each comes from, and which of the two types of pigs (Iberico and white). But, there’s more. Not only where the pig was raised, but whether it ate grain, or for the best, acorns. With the samples, Spanish cheeses, and a glass of wine. Although we’ve been to Spanish ham tastings before, we certainly didn’t ask to be excused!
Continuing the Iberian theme, our next stop was at Pix Bar, whose name comes from ‘pintxos,’ the Basque equivalent of tapas. The word means ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’ and refers to the small wooden skewer stuck in each plate; payment is by the stick for all the items you pick from the display at the front. One price for short sticks, another for long.
Since we were a group of 8, it was easy to pick out quite a few on our two-plate-per-person allowance and share around for tastes. There are about a dozen or more choices each from hot and cold categories. Among my favorites: Patatas Bravas (fried with spicy Romescu sauce), Serrano ham and Bechamel fritter, gazpacho (the stick goes in a crouton) and a pistachio-coated morcilla sausage with a fruit compote.
Veering way east culturally, and to the edge of Soho physically, our last stop before dessert was at Opium, a Chinese dim sum bar upstairs in what seems like an old tenement. Its décor is meant to recall the atmosphere of an old-time opium den; sadly I have no basis for comparison. But the dim sum I can say were excellent, even though by then it was hard to think about more food!
But what’s a food tour (or a meal) without dessert? Well, although we don’t eat dessert at home that often, we were pleased to end up at the oddly-named Basement Sate for pastry and a last drink. The first part of the name is accurate, but what we saw was definitely not sate! When people talk about decadent desserts, this must be what they’re talking about. Sweet, picquant, well-flavored, and a great way to end the tour.
But before we go, I've a few more notes on the neighborhood, including its diverse collection of buildings and styles, some of them above and below.
Soho has an industrial history as well, and buildings such as the former hat factory below are being turned to other use. One of the first re-uses came in the 1830s, when Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell (yes, the jam and condiment makers) bought the infamous White House brothel at 21 Soho Square and turned it into a factory and office.
And we'll finish with the Spirit of Soho mural from 1991, full of the characters who have lived and worked in the area...and a clock.
Once an hour, the clock strikes and two central characters come to life...the opera singer Theresa Cornelys, center, winks at her lover Casanova, whose lips make kiss-kiss motions, while Karl Marx takes a sip from a bottle of Coca Cola! Click to see it happen!