Stylish Northern Thai Food in East London

Som Saa l l 43A Commercial St, London E1 6BD l 020 7324 7790 l Visited March 2018

There are many attempts to recreate the bustling street food of South East Asia in London. Thai restaurants, in particular, seem to have followed back the myriad of gap-year, backpackers that have ventured from the capital. Seeming to range from Pad Thai vendors in shipping containers, through to more up-market places like Central London’s Patra and Shoreditch’s Smoking Goat. One name always comes up when discussing London Thai food though: Som Saa.

The struggle with recreating Thai food in London is very much real. The difficulty is that you can’t recreate the memories of sitting in a small shack to escape the midday heat. Being served green Thai curry that makes your nose run out of a family kitchen, whilst clutching a cold Singha. You also can’t recreate the price when you fork over a few Baht amounting to £1.50, including tip. You most certainly can’t recreate a condom Christmas tree and a romantic courtyard.

Grilled prawns with coconut marinade at Som Saa

Coco Nuts for these – Grilled prawns in a southern style coconut marinade with ‘ajut’ salad

In spite of that challenge, Som Saa has gained quite the reputation. Just off of Spitalfields Market and Liverpool Street, it’s assured of nearby crowds any day of the week. Maybe they’re hoping Commercial Road will do its best impression of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. With no way to book, it’s obviously confident of a full house and arriving outside, I needn’t have worried. Or quite possibly worried more to ensure we had arrived more promptly to stick our names down for a seat. Appeased by a long bar, peering over a selection of tipples, we wait and peer.

If good things come to those who wait, gung golae are fit for the patient. Thai food is known for its balance of sweet, salty, sour and chili heat and these large prawns, stood to attention, fit the bill. Obediently upright to be dredged into a sauce of fresh coconut and shrimp paste. The sweet grit of coconut meat and salty paste sit alongside chili heat and a squeeze of lime. Indeed, the mouse shit chillis are the only ‘shit’ part of the plate.

Stir fried gurnard at Som Saa

Gurn’ing in East London – stir fried gurnard with southern style curry paste,
snake beans and apple aubergines

A rapid succession of dishes then appears on the table, edging out room for rose and craft beer. We steal the edges of the table next door. Sharing is all part of the fun. Yum makeua yao is a vibrant mix of herbs and grilled aubergine. The aubergine cooked so that it was closer to giving up its form than me on my return from a recent all-inclusive. ‘Prawn floss’ is strewn across the top to provide texture and seasoning.

It’s refreshing to see the ‘curries’ and ‘wok’ section of a London Thai menu feature so many diversions from the norm. At Som Saa there are no ‘Green Thai Curry’ or ‘Drunken Noodles’, however nice they may be. Instead, their Red Thai Curry’ is gaeng kua jay, with a warming broth that’s hotter than it’s ‘mild’ title. It’s hiding some supple winter melon and a tang of kaffir leaf and galangal. A dry wok fry of crispy Cornish gurnard with a paste of chili, turmeric, and bunches of peppercorns like misplaced earnings again has us grasping for the water, It really is quite the collection, and without a shred of meat in sight.

red thai curry at Som Saa

All Red Everything – kanchanaburi province curry with dip lii pepper, holy
basil, fresh water eel and mussels

The papaya salad was potentially our one misstep. With so much to explore and be impressed with on the table, it failed to stand out from any number of versions across London. Speaking of standouts, we actually veered away from the whole deep fried seabass that’s on so many lists of ‘best London dishes’. In this life, I have few regrets, my friend. Upon seeing it arrive at the next door table, I may have added one to the list.

Ok, so there’s no condom Christmas tree. There’s no beating midday sun or matriarch juggling multiple pans. And yes, there’s certainly more to the bill than £1.50 (actually around £55 a head including tip and several drinks each). But Som Saa succeeds brilliantly at feeling like it captures the spirit of regional Thai food whilst elevating it to make it feel worth the extra dent in your wallet. It’s unlike nearly every other London Thai, and that is one of the best things about it.