Mama Irene's Lennies Snack Bar looks perpetually closed
There is something endearing about home-cooked food. There is no tablecloth, no finesse, no well groomed serving staff. Just plain honest food. Perhaps that was what drawn us to Mama Irene's kitchen along Calvert Avenue, a short stroll from Shoreditch High Street Overground station.
Mama Irene is perhaps the best kept secret in Shoreditch. She serves up her fare in a cosy little set up that goes by the unlikely name of Lennies Snack Bar. Its glass windows are permanently boarded up by wire mesh (perhaps as a precaution after the London riots of 2011) and we thought that it was closed.
Step into the shop and you will be greeted with tables and chairs neatly lined up. An exposed fridge with a noisy motor haphazardly stocked with eggs, lemons, aberguines, peppers, bottles of sauces, tomatoes, carrots, loaves of bread stands against the wall. It reminds me of my grandma's larder; it used to stock anything and everything that she needed to cook up a feast whenever we visited.
The long kitchen counter that segregates Mama Irene's stoves and the seating area is hardly in a better shape. Really, the restaurant feels like an extension of Mama Irene's kitchen. Given the circumstances, you would have expected that the walls to be adorned with photos of a past era; we have pieces of erotic art filling the entire shop instead. Then again, we are in the heart of Shoreditch. No surprises there, I suppose.
Mama Irene drew up a chair, sat down with us and asked us what we would like for starters. Even though there is a well laid out menu, we did the sensible thing asked her for her recommendations. "I have spring rolls and papaya salad but the salad is really hot," she replied. We ended up with an order of the salad and spring rolls as anything more "would be too much for us".
Fiery papaya salad with spring rolls
She left without taking our orders for mains. We realised why soon after - the papaya salad and spring rolls took more than half an hour to arrive. We were famished by then and it took us just five minutes to gobbled everything up. Boy, she wasn't kidding when she said that it would be hot. PG was gasping for air after the first bite but the sadomasochism in him took over and he just couldn't stop. It was that good.
As Mama Irene sat down with us again to go through the menu (essentially varieties of beef, chicken and fish), we couldn't help but notice that the general theme is chilli. She noticed the sweat building up on our brows and promised to go easy on the chilli in our mains.
We should have ordered more starters and the mains took another 45 minutes to arrive. "These really taste like homecooked food," AR remarked, "you can really taste the different degrees of heatiness in each dish." Accordingly to Mama Irene, each dish is cooked to order and prepared from scratch. That explains the long waiting time.
Beef stir fried in black bean sauce
Chicken green curry
The chicken green curry had the longed for coconut milk sweetness that cut through a tinge of spice. Even though the beef cuts were supposedly cooked in black bean sauce, we could still taste some chilli in it. Then again, it might be the remnants of the green curry on our palate. The meats in both dishes were coarsely cut and came across as under-seasoned. They could certainly do with more gravy that our long grain rice was screaming for.
Crispy sea bass in three sauces
We had better luck with the crispy fish. Deep fried sea bass (Mama Irene warned that there would be lots of bones) doused with "three sauces" (mango, sweet and sour, and not forgetting chilli). Sliced stir-fried mushrooms accompanied it. As all deep fried fish go, crunching through the crisp skin is always a joy. PG has a curious habit of removing the skin though. He was absolutely horrified when I started chewing through the crisp tail. I couldn't help it - it is a habit that I have since young whenever Mum do a deep fried fish. I thought the fish spent a bit too long in the wok and as a result overdone. But at least, that came with ample gravy and we were lapping it up.
With the dishes priced between £7 to £8.50, all that with a cup of coke (poured from an opened 1.5L bottle in front of us) came down to a very reasonable £40 for three inclusive of a 10% service charge. We were stuffed towards the end thanks to extra servings of rice.
Simple setup with a casual feel
Mama Irene's Lennies Snack Bar is not the place to go for a first date. In fact, you should avoid it unless you are absolutely sure that you have loads to talk about with your fellow diner. Spending more than an hour waiting for the food in silence isn't exactly my idea of fun. However, if you are longing for some homey fare in a relaxed setting, look no further.
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