Restaurant review: Chick'n Lick'n, Bankmore Cafe and Vietnamese Coffee Co
Dublin Road and Great Victoria Street, all Belfast
A golden triangle of coffee houses, bars, restaurants and takeaways has emerged in that space between Belfast city centre's Dublin Road and Great Victoria Street.
Among the mish-mash of businesses - including a mechanic's garage in Ventry Lane, a drone-filming firm, a chemist, Tesco Metro and the Chest, Heart and Stroke building - a range of small eating and drinking places has blossomed like Alpine plants on rocky ground.
From the hugely popular Slum's curry burrito place on Bruce Street, up to the Tao noodle bar on Dublin Road, there are great bars, including Filthy McNasty's and the Points, one of Belfast's best Chinese, the Joy Inn, and Archana, a pukka Indian restaurant which majors on vegetarian dishes, and a new artisan pizzeria, Bella Vita. Kitch, just up the street, is also a good, informal lunchtime bistro.
It's no wonder the Dublin Road is still called the Golden Mile (Back in the dark, olden days there was La Belle Epoque, which was famous for its allumette chips and long afternoons drinking cheap Beaujolais).
And no matter how much commercial development has headed downtown to the Cathedral Quarter, the Dublin Road holds on to the title and keeps on truckin'. It's still delivering the goods. Better still, it has a number of tiny surprises which have taken hold in recent months.
I have chosen three of these to recommend as stops on a very economical walking tour (under a tenner), allowing you to enjoy a course, or a drink, in each. The benefit of this approach to your lunch hour is, of course, the exercise, but do not be alarmed: the distances between the three venues amount to barely 200 yards.
Start with Chick'n Lick'n on the Dublin Road, a fast-food joint which is spotlessly clean, independent and very friendly. A peri-peri chicken burger meal for £5.49 (sitting in) will set you up for the afternoon. The marinated fillet is moist and tender, spiced up with some chilli onions and with strong hints of Middle Eastern flavours.
The only weak spot is the cheap bap, which doesn't have the robustness to maintain shape until the last bite. But never mind that, because Chick'n Lick'n is an unexpectedly relaxing place, thanks to the clever seating and creation of intimate corners and areas.
I notice many foreign students like to go there. This is possibly because of its international airport feel, neutral on the one hand, but designed to be pleasant for a short while, long enough to finish your chips and Coke.
Following this, you step across the Dublin Road and walk a few steps up to Bankmore, a tiny street corner counter creaking under the weight of cakes and pies beneath which, in the glass-fronted chill cabinet, are various sandwiches and bits and bobs to create your own.
I don't suggest you follow your chicken burger with a ham and swiss focaccia with mushrooms combo, accompanied by the day's soup; rather, go for the banana cake. It's a French-style cake, closer to a flan, rich, thick in texture and incredibly tasty (and filling). The coffee here is decent and there are small stools and even seats outside if you really want to park yourself.
Next is the Vietnamese Coffee Company, which will require you to walk down Harmony Street and on to Downshire Place to get to Great Victoria Street.
Here you will find the quirky, bright little interior, cleverly disguised as a Saigon shebeen and staffed by two brothers who, after a 10-day holiday in the country, came home, invested their redundancy money in the place and created a very cosy and good-quality cafe.
Here, they will make Banh Mi sandwiches just as you will find them over there, a lovely fusion of French baguette and Vietnamese pickled things, chicken, ham and so on.
But it's the coffee which requires your attention.
As the Moroccans do tea and the Turks do coffee, the Vietnamese approach is rich and evocative, featuring sweet condensed milk and ice. The coffee here is authentic high-grade Vietnamese-grown arabica.
Afficionados rave about the coffee ice-cream and the "cafe da", iced black coffee, and I can vouch for its addictive qualities.
These are three little gems.
Your friends and family will be dead impressed when you take them there. Guaranteed.
Spicy chicken goujons meal in Chick’n Lick’n £5.49
Banana cake in Bankmore Cafe £2
Café Da, Vietnamese Coffee Co £2.50