Loaded, Stoke Newington

Since gourmet burger chains are now hip and trendy, and Stoke Newington as hip and trendy a spot as you’ll find in East London, it’s no surprise to find a second branch of Loaded in the High Street, adding to the original Ilford outlet.

I say gourmet burger chain, though the menu at Loaded extends well beyond burgers, encompassing ribs and a number more fast food staples, though these are not my concern here and now.  Also worth bearing in mind that burger chains these days seem to offer patties made from chicken, lamb and veggie equivalents, thus catering for the tastes of gentrified London.

Loaded faces stiff competition in the form of well-fancied and established outlets such as Lucky Chip, Stokey Bears, Psychic Burger (website defunct), Neon Burger and probably a whole lot more ridiculous and flashy names that I have yet to encounter.  I’m expecting a branch of the excellent Honest Burgers to open there any day now, and this reminds me I must also visit the new Patty & Bun restaurant over the road from Liverpool Street Station.

Strange as it might sound for a dish that originated as American fast food culture, burgers really can be splendid eating.  They will never be “fine dining” (a pejorative phrase If ever there was one), but they are evidence aplenty that lowbrow dining can be warmly fulfilling – and can also be made at home with delicious results (see last paragraph below.)

The modern chains make nods to the classic burger construction while finding ample opportunities to expand on the theme, though they will always be judged, and rightly so, on the quality of their raw materials and component constituents, cooking, assembly and presentation.  Honest Burgers, mentioned above, do it really well, their watchword being to strip back to bare essentials and make each component is exceptional in their own right.  This is why they are the benchmark against which I measure each newcomer to the crown of best burger in London, though improvement is always possible.

Loaded certainly looks like a restaurant aimed at the trendier youth culture rather than old farts like me, though to be fair there were several generations of an extended family on the next table.  The benches are upholstered in antique denim jeans, the walls decorated with jazzy patterns and the lighting can best be described as “funky.”

Nevertheless, all restaurants stand or fall on their service and food, so it was welcome to be greeted with a smile by a waiter who directed us to a table.  He then proceeded to tell us that he would not take our orders, that would be done and prepaid at the till, thus detracting from the warmth of the welcome.  He did bring our food from the kitchen, but it would have helped our impression had he taken orders in what was at the time a deserted restaurant – and encourage customers to leave a tip too.

Several other aspects of Loaded service will also put off a section of the clientele, greatest of which is that, due to a change in banking services, Loaded cannot currently take cards – but do direct cashless diners to an ATM over the road.  In a card-driven society, that is a factor the management must fix without delay, though the other issue spotted is cultural.  There are plenty of milkshakes and non-alcoholic cocktails and beverages on offer, even zero proof beer, but alcohol is not on the menu since it is contrary to their religious beliefs.  If alcohol is your thing, buy your burgers elsewhere.

Diet Pepsi is Diet Pepsi, though my vanilla milkshake, coming in a vogueish square jar and topped with whipped cream that I would have requested be omitted had I known, was otherwise excellent and actually tasted of vanilla.  It might seem blatantly obvious but frankly artificial vanilla flavours on the market do a great disservice to this most noble of spices; credit then to Loaded for doing a tasty, if perhaps not over-generous shake with the real deal.

Of the food ordered, we sampled two burgers: a “Classic” (a word that used to mean of an original design, but has now been redefined as simple and unadorned) and “Machete Burns” – nomenclature indicating chilli heat added to the mix along with caramelised onions, fresh chillis and a number of other ingredients.  Prices seem reasonable individually, though the separate fries and other “sides” bump up the overall cost: we had a plain skinny fries, a cheesy fries and a coleslaw.

I’m not typically a fan of skinny fries in fast food restaurants, most of which are straight from freezer to frier.  These tasted homemade and rather better than average.  Even the cheese and mayo topping surprised by virtue of avoiding “plastic cheese syndrome” so common in burger chains – for which the American trade has much to answer.  The coleslaw too was unmistakably a fresh concoction, redolent of shredded veg and good mayo in the way that factory-made never achieves.

But it’s the burgers you want to know about, since nobody goes to a burger chain to eat fries and coleslaw alone.  Of the two, the Classic came much the rarer, and therefore much the juicier and more succulent.  If you are serving burgers medium rare as a standard, which gourmet chains rightly do (and for which you need high quality fresh-minced steak), then the cooking should be consistent.

Consequently, while my brioche bun and a range of smoky accompaniments were well done and worthy of praise, the burger itself was under-seasoned and something of a disappointment, both on its own terms and against the Honest Burgers benchmark.

My companion, who has yet to visit HB, was also disappointed with her burger in spite of it being nicely pink, so I can only assume her burger memory experience has also been of higher quality aged meat that provided greater depth of flavour, plus good seasoning.

This is a shame, since Loaded does many things right – even if the service provision and payment is not yet sorted, though all of these things can be tweaked while they sort out the teething troubles in a new restaurant. I wish them success, but as yet they are not up to the mark set by the finest.  Perhaps a trip out to see the competition might help?

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to cooking my own charcoal-grilled burgers this spring, with the best mince (ideally a combination of steak mince with rib to include the right proportion of flavourful fat) supplied by my local butcher, Millins of Tiptree.   If you are getting into gourmet burgers, provenance of sourcing counts!

For buns I prefer a bit of texture rather than soft and floppy, and have achieved excellent results with toasted ciabatta rolls.  For fillings and sides, you can make your own and know what goes into them.  However good a gourmet chain might be, it really can’t be as satisfying as cooking your own!

PS. The Loaded website includes no email contact so I have called them to request an address to mail this review to.  I look forward to a top notch product next time I visit!

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