Tucked away in Deansgate’s Great Northern Warehouse, this hidden gem serves up some of the most authentic – and reasonably priced – Thai food you can get.
I lived in Thailand as a kid, so going out for a Thai meal in this country was always a mixed experience. I love a green curry or pad thai as much as the next person, but the same old tame flavours of British-Thai restaurants often leave me missing the fiery soups, noodles and salads dished up by Bangkok street food carts – for about what you’d pay for a packet of sweet chilli crisps over here. So, when I heard about Siam Smiles – a no-frills Thai cafe launched off the back of a Southeast Asian wholesale business – I was nervously excited. This wasn’t some chain pan-Asian noodle bar bullshit, but a proper Thai chef with a whole stockroom of authentic ingredients at her disposal.
Having built up a loyal following operating out of a Chinatown basement supermarket, Chef May’s Siam Smiles was forced to up sticks by rising rent around the Red Arch, only to reopen last May in the Great Northern Warehouse development. The restaurant isn’t the easiest to find – you head up some steps from street level, then down a walkway past the Odeon. Despite the move, it’s kept the ‘backroom’ aesthetic. The exposed concrete and ventilation pipes coupled with the kitch-y oriental decor wouldn’t look out of place in a hipster Northern Quarter bar, but without the smug this-is-expensive sheen.
The menu is the first sign that this is the real deal. It’s brightly coloured, laminated affair, with with a chilli infographic that we assumed was for expressing how spicy you wanted your food, but turned out just to be a warning of things to come. Main dishes ranged from around 7 quid for vegetarian meals to just under 10 for some of the fancier seafood or meat dishes. You’ll find all the hits – pad thai, green curry, prawn fried rice, etc. – but also some street food classics you don’t always see in the UK. We ordered pad see eew (£8.95) – wide, flat noodles stir-fried with prawns and tom yam style sauce – and som tam thai (£7.50) – a spicy green papaya salad.
Our food arrived quickly, served by a friendly young waiter. The som tam arrived first: a mountain of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, dried shrimp, peanuts and chillies, all drenched in a sweet and sour fish sauce dressing. I last had this food made by the old woman who ran a som tam cart opposite my house in Bangkok, who I swear was either magic or putting something addictive in her salads – so needless to say I had high expectations. Chef May must be in on the secret, because this was the same explosion of pleasingly-lethal chillies and sour-sweet-juicy salad, balanced out by the salty dried shrimp and peanuts.
The pad see eew arrived not long after the salad, by which point we were craving something to sooth our weak western palates from the spice onslaught of the som tam. This was not to be – the noodles packed a punch, although not quite to the same extent. As we started visibly, masochistically suffering from the heat we were brought a tray of yet more types of chilli – which felt somewhere between kindness and mockery. Tom yam is usually a hot and sour soup, but here was repurposed as a stir fry sauce that cut through the deliciously chewy noodles excellently. I was impressed by the generously-proportioned, tail-on prawns, but felt more veg would have helped balance an otherwise quite heavy noodle dish.
So many places to eat are described as hidden gems – but this one really is. For under a tenner you can get a fresh, tasty meal that hasn’t been changed for British tastes. Go eat.