London’s Best Thai Restaurants
It wasn’t too long ago that a typical meal in one of London’s Thai restaurants began with a platter of deep-fried brown items to dip in sweet chilli sauce, followed by a wan pad Thai and some banana fritters for dessert.
Actually, the banana fritters are still kind of great if you’re in the mood, but the rest – well, it was about as interesting as hearing what your younger brother got up to at the Irish bar in Bangkok. You know, that time when Bantzy took his kit off and ran into the sea backwards and… zzz.
In the last few years a group of new restaurants have flung open their doors and invited us in to experience a little of the true Thai cuisine. These are our favourite spots.
Smoking Goat Shoreditch
A second branch of Ben Chapman’s dark and chaotic Thai restaurant has opened in Shoreditch, and this time, it’s dingier, louder and generally even more fun than the original. The focus here is on ‘Thai drinking food’ and as far as we can tell that means lots from the grill, platters of sloppy, messy deeply gratifying dishes you can shovel into your face and onto your lap, and some really quite serious heat.
Our last visit saw us rocking up at 9pm and ordering, well, pretty much everything. That’s how we know you should definitely order the smoked brisket drunken noodles – pieces of glorious fatty meat mixed with giant flappy noodles that are perfect for flicking chilli into your neighbour’s eye as you wrestle the things into your mouth. There’s loads of holy basil and ginger going on too, keeping things fragrant.
Also on the don’t miss list: the duck larb, which should absolutely come with a warning that one minute you’ll be taking a mouthful, the next you’ll be floating above your own body, drooling; it has to be the spiciest dish in London right now. Oh, and also get the lardo rice, which is basically rice fried in cured pork fat – the rice is chewy (as proper fried rice should be) and the lardo rich and full of flavour. Use the accompanying dipping sauce as just that. This all sounds like perfect ‘drunk food’, and it is.
Smoking Goat, 64 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6JJ
The Begging Bowl
This place has been ticking along in Peckham since 2012, and they’ve just opened a second site at The Prince at West Brompton. We’ve been nipping into the original for years, stuffing our faces with bouncy Thai fishcakes and spending many summer afternoons in their kerbside conservatory, wondering if we can get away with one more glass of wine.
The food here strikes just the right balance between accessibility and authenticity; this is right in the heart of gentrified Peckham, and it’s packed with families who are either local or have come from neighbouring East Dulwich. There’s something on the menu for everyone, then, from restless kids to adults who want a bit more spice and heat.
The whole deep fried seabass has been on the menu for years and is now something of a signature dish; we love the way it curls in the fryer and offers lots of little nooks and crannies to please eager fingers. They have a way of crisping pork belly that’s second to none and we love that the sticky rice is unlimited.
The wine list used to be a drawback here but it’s now much improved as they’ve started working with a handful of small and medium-sized importers. What are you waiting for?
The Begging Bowl, 168 Bellenden Road, SE15 4BW; The Prince at West Brompton, 14 Lillie Road, SW6 1TT
101 Thai Kitchen Hammersmith
101 Thai Kitchen is not one of the modern wave of Thai restaurants we’re currently enjoying in London and nowhere is this more evident than in the appearance of the place. It looks a bit like a community centre or staff canteen and those who don’t like pink are advised to avoid looking directly at, well, anything.
The food here is in the style of Esarn in North East Thailand. Some of the presentation may seem basic, but the flavours are anything but, including the fermented fish guts they use to sauce some of the dishes.
It may not have the complexity or fanatic dedication to ingredient sourcing of, say, the kitchen at Kiln (see next entry) but there’s still lots to love and fans keep it well patronised – including more than a few Thais.
101 Thai Kitchen, 352 King Street, W6 0RX
We’re back with Ben Chapman again in the Kiln kitchen, where he leads a team that produces stunning Thai food influenced by Yunnan, Burma and Bangkok. His dedication to ingredient sourcing and research is now well known and it’s a joy to watch food prepped here; sit at the bar in front of the open kitchen and watch the cooks chop ingredients and pound them in great pestle and mortars. Famously, the kitchen cooks with live fire, using wood to fuel the fires beneath clay pots, woks and grills.
The results are stunning, from the deep-sea flavour of the crab and pork belly claypot noodles which have all the funk of the crevices and corners of shells, to the mysterious smoked sausages and spitting chunks of fatty lamb, almost rusted with spice.
They’ve no problem with lighter touch here too, as you’ll find out if you order the langoustines, which come split, raw, their naturally sweet meat dressed with Kaffir lime and sweet mint. Such a pretty, luxurious snack.
Your problem here is trying to get a table. Kiln does not take reservations so it’s best to get there off-peak if you can, otherwise it’s a case of leaving your number and trying not to get too drunk while you wait for that text message.
Kiln, 58 Brewer Street, W1F 9TL
When Som Saa really kicked off in a railway arch in East London (Climpson’s Arch), it had many Londoners wandering aimlessly, their confused faces illuminated by the light of Google Maps. For those who didn’t live nearby it was a total pain to get to, so everyone was very pleased when they opened a proper restaurant on Commercial Street.
Som Saa was one of the first Thai restaurants in London to really make an impression. We’d all had a brief fling with Brixton’s Kaosarn before the service and draughts got the better of us and when Som Saa came along it wowed with bold flavours, unapologetic chilli and home-made fermented and cured ingredients the like of which London had not seen before.
They also do a version of that whole fried seabass you’ll find at The Begging Bowl here, and it is a superior version: punchier and more complex of flavour. The salted palm sugar ice cream is also not to be missed for dessert – deep, rich caramel tones which plunge beyond the norm and make you lose a little bit of yourself in the moment. This comes with a turmeric fried banana, which is, yes, a more interesting take on that classic banana fritter.
Som Saa, 43A Commercial Street, E1 6BD
Sebby Holmes, the man at the helm of Farang, came through the kitchen at The Begging Bowl before going on to open his series of pop-ups. The restaurant is currently in residence at a former Italian cafe in Highbury Park, and we’re sure that it’ll settle somewhere permanent eventually.
We particularly loved their gai prik, or fried chicken in a potent scotch bonnet sauce topped with flurries of fresh herbs and chopped shallots, which had us sweating on a hot summer’s day. A creamy ‘lon’ too, sweet with Cornish lobster, had us cooing in all the right places.
Farang, 72 Highbury Park, N5 2XE
Top photo: Farang