Som Saa, a Thai pop-up off of London Fields, cooks out of a shipping container for 30-odd covers at a time. This simple setup, accompanied by a wood-fired grill, serves a changing menu of ‘street food’ from Northern Thailand, dishes that rarely grace a London menu.
Since opening in winter word has travelled, and when we showed up for dinner at 6pm on the dot on a Sunday afternoon, a long queue had already formed. “It’s not too bad,” the door manager said apologetically when he took our names, “about an hour and a half or so”.
London is arguably the most international city in the world, but it remains challenging to find a Thai menu that isn’t an unholy mishmash of pan-Asian hits: green curry, vegetable tempura. Growing up in Southeast Asia, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to authentic Thai cuisine, and I miss the sheer variety of dishes, such as steamed lady fingers dipped into a spicy shrimp paste, deep-fried pomfret and olive fried rice. When the most inventive Thai available locally appears to be Alan Yau’s chain Busaba, there is a gap in the market.
There are no noodles or green curry on Som Saa’s menu, and the food ranges from good to sublime. The most familiar dish, green papaya salad, is studded with chillis, as it should be. Highlights are the grilled octopus salad, with cubes of meaty, fresh octopus that taste of wood smoke; and smoked aubergine with prawn floss. My dining companion delighted in the comforting pork belly curry as well as the fried whole sea bass covered in fresh herbs, perfect with our sticky rice. We finished off our meal with a palm sugar ice cream that was elegant and decadent. There’s also an interesting variety of bar snacks to see you through the wait for a table.
With its £7.50 glasses of Riesling, DJ sets, and plastic cups, Som Saa certainly has a whiff of its trendy American counterpart, Pok Pok, where a young Western chef, armed with nothing but a dream, a barbecue and a marketing plan, went on to build a small empire around Thai ‘street food’ and signature chicken wings.
There’s very little here that is reminiscent of Thailand in the dining room or the clientele and, at £30 a head or so with drinks, I can’t afford to make this a regular haunt. But this is undoubtedly the best Thai food I’ve had in the 10 years I’ve lived in England, and my dining companion solemnly said it was the best he’d ever had. So until something else pops up to compete, Som Saa is certainly a most welcome newcomer.
Arch 374 Helmsley Place, E8 3SB