Review: Café Coco
Charmingly decorated, deceptively compact and the original outpost of restaurateur Clinton Pugh’s gradual yet determined takeover of Cowley Road, Café Coco opened in 1993 and enjoys a reputation as one the most reliable spots in East Oxford for a brace of cocktails or unfussy meal with friends.
I’d managed until now to never sample Coco’s wares, although you can’t miss the less-than-subtle advertising attached to the building. “We believe this is the best burger in Oxford”, proclaims the Dawson Street-facing wall – that sounds a lot like fighting talk to me, so I ventured in on an overcast Saturday afternoon to see if the food lives up to the signage.
As seems to be the case at all of Mr. Pugh’s ventures, staff are permanently warm, smiley and eager to help. The menu is comparatively unambitious compared to competing establishments at similar price points, but this is far from a criticism; rather, the offering of burgers, pizzas, salads and vaguely Mediterranean-themed starters point to a kitchen that knows what it’s doing and isn’t afraid to do it simply and properly. The healthiest and trendiest item on offer is a pan-roasted salmon fillet placed atop a bombardment of ‘superfoods’, from quinoa and mint to chia seeds and cranberries.
However, I’m not here for that and neither are you – it’s a lazy weekend lunch, you’re mildly hungover, and there’s a pizza on the menu with merguez sausage. The bases are unusual – slightly chewy and denser than the hyper-authentic Italian options available across the city, but packed with savoury bite and just oily enough to be moreish without becoming over-greasy. The soft, lamb and beef sausage is exceptionally well spiced, and the peppers, garlic and chillies crank up the taste some more, with spinach and a dollop of tzatziki flawlessly rounding off the flavours.
The Neapolitan purists might hate this sort of meddling with their sacred formula, but they can stay crying into their ‘00’ flour because this interpretation is fun, well-executed and delicious. Now, on to the self-proclaimed champion of Oxonian beef-in-bread. In the past I’ve been continually disappointed by burgers in general – no matter which way you look at it, or which flowery adjectives you use to entice potential punters into sampling your wares, the thing is still, ultimately, ground beef in a bap.
Thankfully, once you’re inside the building, Coco let their products speak for themselves. Choose from a six ounce ground steak patty, a vegetarian equivalent, or, of course, the ever present option of pulled pork. As, at this point, I’m bored to tears with pulled pork (as an aside, when did we stop calling it ‘brisket’?), and treat vegetarian burgers with the earnest but doubtful optimism of a fat child’s parent on Sports Day, I opted for the flagship. Coco choose to serve their burgers medium rare; I never really saw the point of leaving pink in the middle of a piece of meat which is already ground to an even consistency, but that’s purely a matter of preference. The meat itself is clearly well cared-for and well sourced. The beef has excellent depth of flavour and the bun is warm and fresh – a quality burger bun without resorting to brioche, ciabatta, or other breads that mean well but ultimately don’t belong on a burger. Add the classic combo of tomato, lettuce, red onion and gherkin, and nothing else is required. If you must, there is the option to include all manner of toppings from Oxford blue cheese and piquillo peppers to tzatziki and houmous, but they really aren’t necessary and you’d only be disguising the flavour of that gorgeous patty.
So – the best burger in Oxford? It certainly beats the aspirational burger joints littered around George Street, and as for the Cowley Road competition, I’d say Coco’s is the finest by a long way. Give it a try.