Half an hour queues? Check. Frantic service? Check. Authentic Punjabi food at laughably low prices? Check. Tayyabs has spawned a new restaurant and it’s every bit as good as the original. Well, almost.
Say Tayyabs to any Londoner - especially if they hail from the East End - and you’ll be met with dewy eyed stares and a lengthy monologue about the time they ate a mountain of delicious grilled meat and only paid a fiver for the privilege. Unfortunately, the worst kept secret in the capital has become almost as famous for its Alton Towers style queuing system as it has for its well priced, excellent quality food. Cue Needoo, Tayyabs' offspring - more an overspill for the main restaurant than anything else.
Located spitting distance from London’s most famous Punjabi restaurant, this lesser known but equally low priced, good quality eatery sits around the corner on New Road. A short stroll from Whitechapel tube, it's easily spotted courtesy of its bright red, cartoon like sign declaring its presence to the world and large windowed frontage. Just look for the queue if you’re not sure.
A hundred yards down New Road, the smell of the grill wafts over the pong of garbage to tempt you down the dark, dank road. Immediately inside you’ll spy two tables of four on a raised dais by the window, sat adjacent to the takeaway area with its rows of silver pots containing an array of curries and meats. It’s almost like a kebab shop, albeit one where a seemingly endless queue trails its way down into the basement.
And it’s here where the action takes place. A simple, rather cramped, square room decked out with vibrant reds and salmon pinks is a garish, almost claustrophobic dining area. The seats are so sandwiched in that you’ll be elbow to elbow with your neighbours and you’ll have the occasional bottom in your face as someone tries to squeeze their way into a small seating space beside you. A large screen at the far end is a nice touch and, in lieu of any windows, you can gaze up at the Bollywood videos continuously played. It’s not glamorous, it’s barely even comfortable, but anyone who’s ever been shoehorned into a space barely able to contain a small child at Tayyabs will know what to expect.
Frantic. Waiters rush to and fro, hungry diners queue for half an hour at a time, throwing out glares to couples taking a little too long savouring their last piece of naan bread, and there’s a general feeling of panic. Needoo is certainly loyal to Tayyabs in that respect.
Unfortunately, unlike its sibling, there isn’t that military precision needed for turning so many tables several times in one evening. People are left overly long waiting for the bill or for their order to be taken, and tables aren’t cleared quickly enough. Anyone who’s ever witnessed one customer paying whilst simultaneously being whisked out the door as the table is cleaned in one swoosh of a cloth, placemats laid, condiments lined up and a new group sandwiched neatly into place in the blink of an eye at the famed restaurant around the corner will be disappointed with the more slapdash approach here. Still, with time, it could definitely improve and the service is friendly and warm and the waiters know their stuff when it comes to the menu.
If you’re a local, you’ll be treated to that Cheers-like atmosphere so often missing at restaurants in the capital. And everyone in the endless queue, waiting for an age to be seated, to have their order taken and to be served food is good natured about it. You’ll be hard pushed to see anyone leave without a big smile on their face - probably because they’ve just paid a few quid for the best meal they’ve had in ages. And you can’t argue with that.
And this is why people come to Needoo. Already the word has gotten out so you have to be prepared to queue for a long time at peak periods. But it’s so worth it - as the plates piled high with sizzling grilled meats wafting inches past your face while you wait will attest.
The prices and quality are all in keeping with Tayyabs around the corner. Starters include the famous 80p seekh and shami kebabs, the 50p lamb samosa and plates for under a fiver fresh off the grill, sizzling and smoking, piled high with fried onions and roasted meat. The seekh kebabs are every bit as good as those at Tayyabs - large rolls of perfectly spiced fresh ground lamb that really do melt in the mouth, pardoning all cliches, leaving a delightful aftertaste of the rich meat for a couple of minutes afterwards.
Also excellent is the chilli paneer tikka (5 pieces for £2.50) a rather bizarre dish for Western palates. The grilled paneer cheese cubes, rather than being gooey, stay as plump, solid lumps with a texture and flavour almost like tofu. A vibrant orange covering of chilli lifts the dish, offering a depth of flavour and cutting heat to the cheese. It’s unusual but it really works and you’ll soon be having a fork fight with your dining partner for the last remaining piece. Highly recommended, however, is the fish tikka with fried onions (3 pieces for £5). The white koli is incredibly fresh, perfectly cooked so it flakes at the touch of a fork and is well spiced and balanced with a tikka sauce that adds an edge of heat without alienating delicate palates. Delicious.
Don’t make the ultimate Tayyabs - and indeed Needoo - mistake, however, of stuffing your face with so many tempting starters that you miss out on the equally excellent, well priced mains. This dining experience may be all about the art of gluttony, judging by the juggling act of plates piled on tiny tables all around you, but you have to be clever about what you order. Highly recommended is the karahi chicken keema (£5) - a generous portion of fresh, delicate ground chicken with onions and tomatoes in a yellow sauce that is every bit as intense as the flavour it packs. Your mouth will explode in a sensory overload of spices like cumin, turmeric and chilli, perfectly balanced to provide heat to the dish without detracting from the tender chicken. Dare you admit it may even be better than the same dish at Tayyabs? Blasphemy, surely?
Alternatively, the karahi butter chicken masala (£6) is a heavier dish with equally tender chicken, this time diced into pieces in a well spiced, slightly hot sauce with a creamy undertone that lingers in the mouth long after you swallow. Enjoy your mains with a side of karahi tarka dahl (£4) - perfectly cooked, soft lentils in a creamy, rich sauce - fluffy pilau rice (£3.50 for a large portion, ideal for two sharing) and a crisp, flat keema naan (£2) with a rich slice of lamb in the middle.
If you really can’t be bothered to wait - even if food this good is worth waiting for - then you can order it to go. Also, if you’ve over ordered then they will happily package up your leftovers so you can enjoy them the next day - an option you’ll see being taken up on many tables around you as diners are finally beaten, unable to shovel in the last few delicious mouthfuls, however much they’d like to.
Needoo doesn’t have an alcohol licence so you’ll spy plenty of bags from the local off licences filled with bottles of beer and wine. There’s no corkage fee so this is an option worth taking up. However, they do offer a choice of fresh juices (£2), hot drinks (60p-£1.30), branded soft drinks and sweet and fruit-flavoured lassis (£2) if you’re going teetotal for the evening.
The Last Word
The secret is out. Although it’s a good idea in principle - who could resist Tayyabs with no queues, after all - Londoners have now cottoned on. It’s hot, it’s cramped and there’s a long wait. However, when the food is this good and you can explore the true meaning of gluttony for £15 a head, who cares? If diners could sit on the floor and lap it up off the shiny tiles, they probably would.