Hongkongers have a healthy appreciation for the spicy, tangy flavours of Thai food, and the territory's Thai community of 30,000 has much to offer. Since the 1990s, the five blocks of Kowloon City south of Carpenter Road Park and west of South Wall Road have been affectionately known as Little Thailand for their concentration of Thai-run shops and restaurants. On a bustling Saturday night, diners queue up at the doors of their favourite places on Nam Kok Road; the longest lines usually belong to the Golden Wheat Thai Restaurant and the Lung Jie Thai Restaurant.
A Bangkok friend once said that her litmus test for any Thai restaurant is the laab dish, a moist stir-fry of minced meat (usually chicken or pork), shallots, toasted rice powder, fresh herbs, chilli and lime juice served with whole leaves of lettuce used as wrappers. It has all the quintessential elements of Thai cuisine - freshness, heat and a balance of salty, sour and sweet. We decided to use this compass for this week's face-off.
The turnover at Golden Wheat is quick, and despite the queue, we manage to squeeze ourselves in at one of the Formica-topped tables without much of a wait. The servers look a bit harried with such a big crowd and the dishes are coming out of the kitchen at full speed.
Our dish of laab moo (with pork mince, HK$45) arrives with romaine lettuce leaves piled high next to the mince; the fragrance carries a strong citrus note, and it is that tanginess that hits the tongue with the first bite. The saltiness from the fish sauce follows, then the unmistakable nuttiness from the toasted rice. The meat itself is lean, a bit on the dry side, but there is sauce aplenty that dribbles out from the lettuce wrap with each bite. The leaves have dark green tops and rather prominent stems, a bit tough for salad standards, but made for textured bites in wraps. We couldn't taste much of the chilli and fresh herbs - the lack of which feels out of character in a Thai dish. We suspect Golden Wheat, like many others, dials down the heat factor to better suit Cantonese palates.
We move just a few shops down to Lung Jie, and here the wait is over half an hour as things seem to move more slowly and customers take their time with their food. Here, our seats offer a view of portraits of Thailand's beloved king and queen (or their thirty-something versions).
When our laab moo (HK$45) arrives, we notice that the lettuce leaves are younger and buttery green, which makes wrapping easier. The mince is plump and softer than Golden Wheat's. As we bite into the wrap, the salty, tangy juices from the meat hit the sweet spots on the tongue, followed by the crunch of shallots, the hum of chilli and bursts of mint and young galangal root.
This mince does not have as much of the unique grainy texture from toasted rice powder, but that takes nothing away from the lovely balance of flavours from the fresh pork, herbs and spices.
Thumbs up to Lung Jie for its authentic, full-flavoured dish. Those who prefer a milder version would be better off going to dine at Golden Wheat.
Lung Jie Thai Restaurant
G/F, 18 Nam Kok Road
Tel: 2382 1348
Open: 10am to 11pm, daily
Golden Wheat Thai Restaurant
G/F, 34 Nam Kok Road
Tel: 2718 1801
Open: 11am to midnight, daily