LONDON // The one-way street here has few pubs, few fish-and-chip shops, few Victorian-era homes with trimmed hedges, but it's as British as any London neighborhood can be.
On Brick Lane, in an East London enclave known to locals as Banglatown, the scent of biryani and vindaloo wafts from practically every other shop. That's because this 1-mile stretch is the unofficial curry capital of England, a country where Indian food is as much a part of the gastronomic scene as shepherd's pie and mushy peas.
Curry is a cheap and popular alternative in ultra-expensive London, especially among the city's 20-somethings. Since many pubs here close before midnight (even after a 2005 British law allowing 24-hour operating licenses), it's not unusual to go out for a curry with your mates after a round of lagers and bitters.
And Brick Lane is where they come Friday and Saturday nights, a place that straddles the line between local hangout and tourist trap. It's not on many London visitors' itineraries - the area is in a working-class neighborhood out of the way from the predictable Westminster Abbey-Trafalgar Square-West End district. But it's a fascinating stroll of gentrification and progress in motion, where young Bangladeshi locals wearing white prayer caps walk down the street listening to their iPods.
On Sunday morning, the area north of the restaurant row becomes a lively street market. Leather is the main attraction, with bags, jackets and shoes sold at reasonable prices by London standards. Trendier boutiques and bookstores pop up on Brick Lane as one nears Bethnal Green Road to the north (closest tube station is Aldgate East for restaurants; Shoreditch for Sunday market, limited service). There's also Beigel Bake, the famed 24-hour bagel shop that serves "hot salt beef," a killer carved corned beef bagel sandwich with hot mustard and sweet pickles for about $4.
But the area's lifeline remains curry, with some 50-plus restaurants serving the pungent, often-spicy dish with rice and naan. Curry to the British is like pizza to Americans.
So popular in fact, Robin Cook, then the country's foreign secretary, in 2001 proclaimed chicken tikka masala (chicken cubes in a mild tomato cream sauce) a "true British national dish." Even the McDonald's restaurants here have served Indian-inspired menu items such as samosas in recent years.
The differences between restaurants along Brick Lane are negligible, and there is no consensus for the area's best curry.
But restaurateurs are eager to help you decide - sometimes being overly persuasive - by hiring what are known as touters. They are staffers who stand outside their curry shops, making their best sales pitch in hopes of getting your business.
On a recent Friday night, they hovered around their restaurants' doorways, shouting out as people walked by, "Hungry, boss?" The touters' intensity and tone increased with larger groups, and decreased with couples. They justified their restaurant's reputation by pointing to the press clippings taped on window fronts, with an affinity for the short, declarative quotes with ellipses and exclamation points.
" ... Best Curry On Brick Lane!"
" ... Only Choice ... "
" ... The Heat Is On!"
One window had a quote from author Irving Welsh, who apparently loved the chicken jalfrezi at this restaurant. Another had a photograph of some boy (I'm guessing it's the son of an employee) posing with English soccer star David Beckham and his ex-Spice Girls wife, Victoria. Does this mean the curry there is delicious?
"Look at our prices, sir," one touter said. "Good service, boss! How many people, sir?"
The friendly yet forceful assault on the senses continued, with the touters hollering, pointing to menus and prices, placing their arms around shoulders of men to show how affable they were. Once they feel they are close to sealing the deal, some touters will offer free drinks and appetizers, or if business is slow, 20 percent off the bill.
The trick seems to be to go to Brick Lane early (most restaurants open at 6 p.m.) with a large group and negotiate with every touter on the block.
The Friday night was young when a group of young bankers and their friends, seven people in all, walked into Preem Restaurant & Balti House. The waiter led the group past the main dining room, past the kitchen and into the dank back room, where a table blocked the emergency exit. That's where the bankers were seated.
"You don't come out for curry for a nice cuisine," said banker Adam Masood. "It's the sort of thing where we're out for a drink, we're hungry, let's go for a curry. When we come to Brick Lane, we don't plan it in advance."
A plate of pappadoms soon arrived as a starter - crispy, album-sized wafer thins made from lentil paste - along with mango chutney, mint chutney, diced onions and some incredibly spicy pickled lime rinds. This is the standard "bread basket" at most Brick Lane restaurants.
The curry selection on the menu can be overwhelming. Dishes such as rogon josh, dhansak, korma and pasanda appeared interchangeably with lamb, chicken and prawns.
The bankers said first-time London curry-goers should try the classic and obligatory chicken tikka masala.
Those wishing to experience spicy near-death should go for phaal, which at some Brick Lane restaurants comes with a verbal disclaimer from the management.
One step down is vindaloo, a tear-inducing dish not for the faint of heart or stomach.
Among some circles in British youth culture (university-aged men, rugby teams), handling spiciness is a sure sign of manliness, several Brick Lane diners noted. It's a macho thing to order the hottest item on the menu - and then to finish it off.
Wira Tandjung, part of the banking group, ordered the chicken madras, one of the spiciest offerings on the menu. "It was nice knowing you," someone said. Before long, sweat beaded Tandjung's forehead.
"It's spicy," Tandjung said, barely containing himself, "when your head starts to itch."
Kevin Pang writes for the Chicago Tribune.