Street food threatens to become one of those culinary tropes that infect every strata of eating. At one point ‘pulled pork’ was the frontrunner for the headline on my suicide note. When I saw ‘pulled chicken’ at a KFC I set off to find the nearest bridge. Funny how something ‘pulled’ can push me over the edge.
My suspicion with street food derives, in part, from a simple matter of language. We’re invited to assume it’s cool because one eats it on the street, in a casual, on-your-way-somewhere sort of way. In adjective form, ‘street’ is there to imply trendiness as much as provenance: think art, dance, sport, fashion. Also, street food vendors are usually specialists, so punters can find the best pretzel, yakitori, crêpe, or shawarma, accruing all the attendant hipster points. If, in Oxford, I’m invited to eat ‘authentic street food’ in a sit-down restaurant, where do I get my hipster points from? How do I get my breezy, transitory sense of cool?
The answer, it so happens, is at 76 St Clements, at The Coconut Tree.
Previously the home of some popular but not altogether life-changing crafty/pubby/cocktaily joints, this spot hasn’t always felt so secure – this looks set to change. Location-wise, it’s a reasonable walk from town and to Cowley’s nightlife. Thus, TCT is the perfect fulcrum for a night out, between drinking in town and dancing in Cowley or vice versa – indeed, a big group on the long bench to the rear seemed to be on that same trajectory.
TCT is joyfully informal. It’s got the air of a DIY job without looking crap. Rodrigo – one of the original five Sri Lankan friends who first started in Cheltenham – told us that someone quoted him an eye-watering figure for a copper bar, so he thought ‘sod that’ and they made one themselves using 2p coins. TCT’s origins are in that spirit. The founding five took over and renovated a tired old spot and opened initially with a view to making cocktails with a few small plates on the side. Gradually, people started coming in seeking food. Eventually, they began asking for more.
Upon superficial inspection, the cocktails might appear somewhat gimmicky. One is served in a whole pineapple, another in an elephant. Throughout, recognisable tipples are amended with Sri Lankan flavours: Ceylon tea, cardamom, turmeric and the eponymous, fibrous drupe.
In less adept hands, the whole pineapple thing might irk me; with a dull palate behind the bar it would be a gimmick. Not so – here its contents (their take on a pina colada) explode with preposterously tangy vibrancy, the sweetness of pineapple giving way to the boozy gut punch of tequila alongside the subtle counterpoints of cinnamon and salt.
Better still was their Old Fashioned. It comes infused with coconut arrack and chocolate, balanced perfectly against the traditional orangey bourbon base, served in a heavy-bottomed glass with a coconut ice cube the size of your fist. It’s the kind of drink that makes you re-evaluate years wasted under the yoke of cocktail orthodoxy.
The food started excellently and remained as such. First was the diced belly pork cooked with TCT’s own roast spice mix: a dish so texturally satiating, so unctuously oleaginous that it should have come with an age restriction. Devilled chicken wings solder your hands to themselves with the spicy-sweet coating familiar to the aficionado. The slow-cooked Jaffna goat curry (recipe courtesy of chef’s dad) was a generous, fulfilling delight while the battered spicy cuttlefish was abjectly divine. If unfamiliarity renders you anxious about departing from a culinary comfort zone, don’t let it. Prices are ludicrously keen across all dishes – you’ll spend more per cocktail – and there are more vegan and gluten-free options than you could shake a coconut at.
Go to this restaurant. If you live south of Sheffield you have no excuse: a third iteration will open soon in Bristol. Book now, book with (vegan) friends and, when you go, talk to the staff. They exude a proficiency and pride that is disarming – even for a cynical, jumped-up smart-arse like me. It’s youthful and authentic, cool and energetic, outrageously delicious and improbably affordable – a true asset to Oxford.