Siam Smiles, Manchester
We find authentic Thai flavours at this unassuming supermarket diner that's quickly becoming a city favourite
I often find myself asking the question: “Why don’t more supermarkets have cafes?” I’m not talking about the type that serves up fish, chips ‘n’ peas with a cup of tea and a slice of buttered white bread for £6.50 (£6.25 for OAPs, or on Tuesdays after 3pm). I’m thinking more along the lines of Venus Foods, a Turkish/Iranian supermarket in Longsight.
It has attached to it a small takeaway, serving grilled fish, chicken livers and top-notch lahmacun (a sort of Middle Eastern spicy lamb pizza). As a kid, I remember trips to Wing Yip in Birmingham, a massive Chinese supermarket located next to an alarming amount of concrete. As a special treat, after the shopping, we’d flit over to the accompanying restaurant to feast on yuk sung.
And, if I’m being honest, I even have a soft place in my memory for trips to the Asda caff, if – and only if – I’d behaved myself, for a slap-up lunch of chips and beans with my nan.
So: why? Why don’t more supermarkets have cafes? It’s an economic dream – make use of the food you don’t sell by extending its shelf-life through cooking and serving to punters. Though those food shops with the common sense to open up an on-the-spot eatery are few and far between, it’s always pleasing to stumble upon one, especially when the food on offer is more than just turkey dinosaurs.
I first dined at Siam Smiles not long after it opened, incredulous that there could really be an authentic Thai restaurant in an underground supermarket. Back then, I’d not had ‘real’ Thai food; after a recent trip to Thailand, it’s pleasing to confirm that the food is as authentic as I had originally imagined.
It would be difficult to say we’d ‘done justice’ to the menu this time around. Hungry for noodles, we chose the Kuai Tiew Ped (yellow noodles with duck and morning glory) as well as a pork noodle dish, most commonly known as ‘boat noodles’; I think it’s official name is Kuay Tiew Moo Na. At Boat Noodle Alley in Bangkok, you can devour as many bowls as you can manage for around 30p each: plastic dishes are filled with the most delicious pork broth, layered with offal and noodles and finished off with a splash of pig’s blood. The version here, though a little more expensive, is as authentic as in the stifling city – blood ‘n’ all.
The duck dish easily compares to the best we had in Thailand, although I think there you’d more likely see leg meat, rather than sliced breast as served here. The broths are huge bowls, larger than on previous visits and can be complemented by the Thai condiments on the table – peanuts, dried chilli, chilli in vinegar, fish sauce and sugar. With our ferociously spicy Lab Moo on the side, they were left untouched.
Lab Moo is a fresh-tasting minced pork salad, spliced with red onions and mint and usually sprinkled with ground toasted rice. Not much of the latter was evident, which was a little disappointing, but if chilli heat is your thing, then the perfect Thai balance of flavours can be found in one dish here. If spice is your thing, then make sure and try their Som Tam Esan. I’ve had ones – both at Siam Smiles and in Thailand – that reduced me to tears with their heat. I wasn’t ready to play this time.
Siam Smiles's appeal lies in its authenticity – there’s no dumbing down of flavours for us farangs, there’s no such thing as a comfortable chair or a pretence that street food stalls offer tissues any thicker than one-ply. Don’t visit expecting pomp and you’ll enjoy your lunch in a supermarket, just as much as I used to those chips and beans.
If you like Siam Smiles, try:
Chilli Banana, Liverpool
Siam Smiles, 48a George St, Manchester