Both in society and culture things are tiered, there exists a gap between what is considered high and low brow. It is apparent in the restaurant scene like anywhere else. The division between fine dining and fast food is seemingly obvious but, in my opinion, the most important part of any dining experience is what I eat. Therefore, it makes no difference what kind of establishment it is; if the food is good, then I would consider it high cuisine.
Siam Smiles is a Thai restaurant on George Street in China Town. You enter through small double doors and descend tiled steps into what is half restaurant and half supermarket. You take your drinks from the supermarket section, take a seat, and order off a laminated menu.
I chose my dining companion for this meal with some care; I wanted an individual who had actually been to Thailand, so I could then use them as a point of reference for authenticity. As Miss Duncan descended the tiled steps through the small double doors, she instantly raised her head, “the smell,” she said, reminded her straight away of restaurants in Thai and Vietnamese towns.
After we ordered we had a look around the aisles. Megan’s face kept lighting up with the glow of nostalgia as she grabbed various items exclaiming, “oh my God, when me and so-and-so were on this coach from Koh Tao to that secret island in The Beach, all we ate were these pea snacks,’ and so it went on. It was a sweet image, you rarely see someone enjoying themselves that much just by picking up items in a supermarket that they have no intention of buying. It was also reassuring, if the ingredients in the supermarket are authentic, then so too must be the kitchen.
Siam Smiles offers Thai street food in three basic formats: noodle, rice, and salad dishes. We started with one of each. For me it was basically food roulette, having never eaten anything on the menu before, I was going on the little descriptions in English along with Miss Duncan’s sage words of advice. Our salad was som tam pla ra, baby crab with green papaya, fresh raw cabbage served e-san style. It literally had a baby crab in it, about the size of walnut, and actually really tasty. The salad as a whole though wasn’t quite to either of our palates, but had we known what it was we may have ordered something else.
For the rice dish I played it safe with the pork belly (£8.50), which erred on the side of average. It did come with a ‘homemade sauce’ that had some serious flavour. Our noodle dish was pad sii eew (£8.50), stir fried flat noodles with soybean paste, chicken and Thai broccoli. The broccoli was like a skinnier tender stem, and was indeed tender, but still had that crunch.
We had a little room left and had both been keen to try a noodle soup, not least because this was that random Friday in March when it was snowing. For some reason the door of the restaurant was left half open and you could see your breath in front of your face. We chose kiew goong moo dang (£8.00), prawn & pork won ton soup with rice noodles, choi-sum (pak choi) and tom-yam seasoning. It was the best thing we ate, the right amount of spice and the dumplings were wonderful.
London food critics rarely grace Manchester with their presence and when they do it is not often with kind words. The Guardian reviewed Siam Smiles in 2014 and sung its praises. For me, it has one of the highest no-frills to food quality ratios I’ve ever experienced. It was really cold, the brickwork was exposed and I’m pretty sure there was a shower in the bathroom, but none of that mattered because the food was so strong. Margot Henderson, of The Rochelle Canteen and wife of Fergus Henderson, owner of the acclaimed St John, gave a brilliant statement about no-frills cooking: “If God had intended us to eat carrots in tiny cubes, he would have made them grow that way.”
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