All the cool kids love street food. It’s everywhere you look now really (well, apart from in Rugby where I live) and those who live in Birmingham have had plenty of chances to try Indian street food with a whole variety of venues. But while I love a curry, I don’t get the street food option that often, hence my curiosity at Rola Wala.
Occupying a prime spot in Selfridges in the Bull Ring, it certainly seems a far cry from the street food that inspired it. Rola Wala is the brainchild of Aussie Mark Wright, who fell in love with the freshness of Indian street food during his own travels and decided to bring it back to the UK street food scene. Fast forward six years from his return to India and Rola Wala – which means ‘The man that rolls’ – now has four branches in Leeds, London, Oxford and the latest addition in Brum.
The venue itself has an industrial feel that we’re all quite used to now, but it’s fun and vibrant and somewhere that you can imagine sitting down for a casual bite to eat or popping in to grab something to take away. The menu is simple – a mixture of spice bowls and naan rolls, either on their own or with two sides to make a more substantial meal – and you order up at the counter.
This all fits with the casual dining ‘I’m in a hurry because I’m shopping and need to go’ vibe that most of Rola Wala’s neighbouring outlets seem to offer. And no, I don’t mean this as a criticism, but you wouldn’t come to Selfridges to linger over a meal, I don’t think, so it makes sense that the places here seem to understand that and cater for people who want to get in, get out but still have a half-decent bit of scran.
I quite like the ‘build your own’ concept that Rola Wala does. First, choose whether you want a naan roll or a spice bowl full of pearl barley, brown rice and lentils that certainly ticks the virtuous box. Then you choose your filling – from Bengali spiced beef, Nagaland lamb and Rola’s chicken tikka to veggie options of sweet potato saagwala, keralan chickpea or chargrilled paneer. You can even ‘double them up’ if you can’t choose between fillings.
Next is picking a chutney – the equivalent of choosing which Nando’s sauce you want your chicken cooked in (sorry if that’s sacrilege to say that). They range from a fruity pear and tamarind through mango, lime and ginger; mint, lime and pineapple; to tomato and naga chilli and the scarily-named ‘Scorpion’.
I go for a Bengali spiced beef with tomato and naga chilli chutney and am greeted by a mound of colour that smacks of freshness and makes me feel like I’ve been rather a good girl with my choice. The beef is slow-cooked and pulled, with a tenderness that contrasts with a slight crunch to the ‘red rice’ at the bottom of the bowl. The tomato and naga chutney is the perfect accompaniment and the the rest of the bowl is packed with fresh crunchy veg and a whole load of fresh coriander. Overall, I’m pleased with my choice and feeling slightly smug.
That’s until I try my pal’s Nagaland lamb roll with mint and lime chutney. It may not look as pretty, but I was won over by the muddle of spice and juicy lamb all encased inside the naan that managed to be robust enough to hold the squishy, meaty lamb shoulder flavoured with onion masala without being too doughy or heavy. A spice expert would be able to tell you how they could detect each and every spice within that meaty wrap but you’re going to have to settle for me telling you it tasted pretty decent.
Curious to see how one of the veggie versions appeared, and greedy enough to want to try the chicken tikka, we created our own concoction by having half sweet potato saagwala, half chargrilled paneer, with some extra chicken tikka on top. I loved the chicken, which was thigh rather than breast and clearly marinated properly to give it a decent depth of flavour.
I’m usually a massive saag fan but wasn’t overawed by the sweet potato saagwala base bowl, thought I enjoyed some hefty chunks of paneer in our alternative choice. Again, the bowl was a rainbow-themed advert for freshness but I just found it more impressive with meat as the starring role. Then again, I reckon if you’re vegetarian or vegan you’d be pleasantly surprised to find that you get as much colour and vibrancy as the carnivores among us.
Feeling the need to check out most of the sides between three of us, we piled into the collection of string fries, ‘avo chaat salad’, sourdough naan, cauliflower popcorn and red channa dal. The sourdough naan spread with Bombay Chutney that I’m told Mark spent hours perfecting after discovering it in India was enjoyable enough, though not showstopping.
Meanwhile, the avo chaat salad was a pretty bowl of mango, pomegranate, tamarind and avocado with some decorations of crispy samosa pastry. I was initially underwhelmed, but digging deep to get a mouthful featuring each member of the cast proved fruitful and I enjoyed the combination of sweet, fresh fruits with creamy avo and zingy tamarind.
The string fries, I’m afraid, weren’t much cop in my opinion. They’re describes as lightly spiced, which is certainly true, and for me just didn’t make enough of an impression to make me want to order them again. Perhaps fries should stick with burgers in future, because they were lost in the flavours of our bowls and rolls.
Rola Wala’s take on channa dal – with additions of beetroot and coconut – had me on the fence for a while, unsure of this departure from a more classic representation and thrown by the sweetness of the beetroot and coconut and left me ultimately coming down on the ‘no’ side of it. But the cauliflower popcorn, by contrast, was a great little addition to the tray, making veg fun with its slightly crispy outer coating.
While these last few lines may have given you the impression I didn’t enjoy my meal at Rola Wala, that’s not the case. The bowls and rolls were tasty, generous and something I’d definitely go back for more of. I just don’t know if I really need the sides and unless I found something that had blown me away, I’d probably settle for an easy meal for under a tenner (rolls or bowls are between £6.95 and £7.95) rather than bothering with them and the extra few quid they add to the bill.
I like a place that can cater for me when I’m in both slightly naughty moods when it comes to food, as well as the days when I’m trying to ignore my urges to eat everything in sight regardless of its calorie content, and I think Rola Wala can do this. It’s also a refreshing break from the usual stop-off option when shopping or grabbing something whilst nipping through town (not that I’m one of those cosmopolitan types who does that often, but I’m imagining that’s what they do).
Yes, I’m sure there are some experts around who will say this isn’t authentic enough for their liking or there are better street food places in Brum, and there probably are. But Rola Wala’s accessible, it’s affordable and adds another option for people who may not have visited some of the more niche places Birmingham has to offer. I don’t see how that can be anything other than good news.
My food at Rola Wala was complimentary. I wasn’t asked to write a positive review and the views in this blog, as per usual, are my honest and amateur ramblings.