Hong Kong’s trendiest Thai restaurants bust authenticity myth and rely on deliciousness
Chefs at hip Thai restaurants such as My Tai Tai, Samsen, Soul Food Hong Kong and Apinara recreate a Bangkok shophouse ambience and prove that foreign cooks can master the spicy Asian cuisine
Back when Hong Kong’s international airport was located at Kai Tak, the city's Thai community was based across the road in Kowloon City. The area was populated by Thai expats who, because of the proximity of the airport with frequent flights to and from Thailand, had ready access to essential ingredients.
Recently, chefs and restaurateurs have opened a number of quality Thai restaurants, the common denominator being their love of the cuisine.
Australian Adam Cliff has worked at some of the world’s top Thai restaurants, most notably Nahm in both London and Bangkok, and Chachawan in Hong Kong. With his partner Bella Kong, he recently opened Samsen, a casual Thai restaurant inspired by the old shophouses in Bangkok.
Also taking inspiration from the Thai capital’s shophouse eateries is Soul Food Hong Kong, a collaboration between Jarrett Wrisley, founder of Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangkok, and local restaurant group Black Sheep Restaurants. Wrisley, an American, became interested in Thai food after spending eight years travelling the country as a food writer. He opened his first Soul Food in a converted shophouse in Bangkok’s popular Sukhumvit area. “The old shophouse restaurants [in Bangkok] – places like Jay Fai and Chote Chitr and others scattered across Chinatown, Dusit, and Sukhumvit – really influenced the food that we cook. Places that make everything from scratch, and source the best produce they can find,” Wrisley says.
Nahm, Australian chef David Thompson’s restaurant in London, became the first Thai restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star, and when he opened a branch in Bangkok, his non-Thai background sparked much debate. (Nahm London closed in 2012, with Thompson quoted as saying it was too difficult to import the correct ingredients due to strict EU regulations.)
Wrisley says he serves and cook the Thai food that he likes, and that he’s more concerned about deliciousness than “hedging to some idea of authenticity”.
Cliff seems to be following the same formula. At his restaurant Samsen, wagyu beef boat noodles are served using beef Hongkongers are familiar with, coupled with a fundamentally Thai preparation.
“Every morning our team prepares the pork-based broth that is simmered throughout the afternoon; allowing the natural sweetness from the bones to be released. When ordered, the soup is reheated, has a final seasoning and is combined with beef, noodles and Thai herbs.”
Diners can spice up their noodles, or give their dish a sour finish, choosing from the jars of condiments on every table, including the house-made toasted chilli vinegar.
Amphon Phoomphookieo, head chef at My Tai Tai in Central, was raised in Isaan, in northern Thailand. He has more than two decades of experience cooking for Hongkongers, so he knows the local palate well and is willing to tone down the heat.
“Food in My Tai Tai is for everyone. We can adjust the level of spiciness,” he says.
Amphon explains the curry sauce is made with egg, which makes it creamy and flavourful – “an upgraded version of yellow curry”.
The chef uses gadgets not normally seen in the Thai kitchen. “We use a lot of modern cooking techniques such as sous vide. We also have a Josper grill/oven, which is rare for Thai restaurants. We grill all of our satay chicken and meat with it to give a charcoal flavour to the meat.”
For Pearl Shek, director of Apinara, it was the nostalgia of holidays spent in Bangkok during her childhood that inspired her to open Apinara in Admiralty. Working with Narawadee Srikarnchana, who founded the Nara group of restaurants in Bangkok, Shek was keen to bring an element of family to the restaurant.
“Apinara offers a lot of traditional Thai dishes that one would normally have at home in Thailand. Food that brings people together and gives a wholesome and warm feeling that reminds you of home,” she says.
Aside from the food, these chefs and restaurateurs all wanted to introduce other aspects of Thai life to the Hong Kong audience. At Apinara, perhaps to ensure diners really get as comfortable as they would be at home, there is a Thai masseuse on standby during happy hour.
Cliff has created a retro Thai atmosphere at Samsen with old-school mosaic floors, distressed furniture and Thai posters on the walls.
“We spent a lot of time trying to recreate the vibe and feel of a local Bangkok shophouse,” he says. “I have been influenced by Bangkok and Thailand’s culture and style and this is definitely reflected in our restaurant.”
68 Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai, tel: 2234 0001
Soul Food Hong Kong
26-30 Elgin Street, SoHo, tel: 2177 3544
Shop205, Level 2, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, tel: 3107 1888
My Tai Tai
2/F, 8 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel: 2896 6018