Between May and August of this year I ate Thai food more than any other, due to a spate of openings in the city. Some were pretty good (Rosa’s), some were okay (Lisa and Pann’s), and some were Giggling Squid, which is still managing to churn out half-decent reviews from their seemingly endless database of clueless Instagrammers, who I assume they manufacture in the same warehouses they bulk-make their truly dreadful food in. I think – and I say think – that it taught me a lot about the cuisine and the restaurants which serve it. I know now that chilli dipping sauce is diluted in-house based on preference and profit margins. I know that lots of Thai restaurants buy in the roast duck due to the laborious cooking processes and the consistency of the final product. I also know that for some of that times you praise the skills of a chef for making that sauce in house, it’s often sadly done in a central kitchen and shipped to that site, and that even worse, due to the B word finding fresh Thai ingredients at a good price is near impossible. If you voted Leave then you really do have yourself to blame for that Holy Basil stir fry having nothing holy about it.
All this mediocre food made me crave Thai food cooked by Thai chefs using fresh ingredients sourced from, yep, you get my laboured points. I went to Sabai Sabai in the city centre not once, but twice, and I think I’ve cracked it. I’m positive that I can give you an order that comes with my personal guarantee that it will serve as the better Thai food in the city. You’ll start with prawn crackers and the ever-so-slightly-loosened chilli dipping sauce and you’ll ask for an extra pot of satay sauce. Unless you have a peanut allergy of course; don’t go blaming your imminent near-death on me.
Now starters. Bypass the deep-fried stuff, not because it isn’t good, but because there is way better elsewhere on the menu. Remember that satay sauce you devoured with the crackers? It’s coming back. Satay Gai, the best chicken satay in town. Good chicken marinated in loads of lemon grass, with that satay sauce that has the depth of properly roasted peanuts and a healthy kick of chilli. And get the sweetcorn cakes whilst you are there; sweet and bound in a little red curry paste, they have more attitude than first anticipated. But the key is the duck laab. Share it if you have to, but don’t miss this or the next course. Minced duck, loads of lime and just as much chilli, sprinkled with the magic dust that is toasted rice powder. It’s a salad in notion, but please do not let that stop you, this is big hitting, full of guile, and jam-packed with flavour. Life hack time; ask for a pot of soy sauce with birds eye chillies, a squeeze of lime, and diced shallot. They’ll know what you’re talking about. Apply tiny amounts to the laab. Send me presents by way of thanks. I like Islay malts and hip hop vinyl if you’re wondering.
In total honesty, the reason for the last three paragraphs is an excuse to shoe-horn the following dish in. I’m calling it now; the short rib massaman here is in the top ten, no, top five dishes in Birmingham. It may look a mess, but frankly that has never stopped you in life and, as your partner knows all too well, life isn’t about looking great all the time. The beef ribs have been braised until the bone slides from the meat like a bobsled team setting off, leaving a tussle of soft meat and fat that has transitioned into jelly. The curry is thicker than usual; a spoonable mess of peanuts and broken-down spud, which clings to the meat in a jealous fashion. It doesn’t need rice – it doesn’t really require anything other than your full attention – but order it anyway, if only to help work the last of it away from the raised edges of the plate. The last two times I’ve had it the plate has been licked clean; it’s honestly that good. You won’t need dessert.
The massaman is a ten, the rest are eight and nines. A meal here is way better than 8, and as I’m too generous of late, we’ll stick with a nine below. Now, having just totted-up the cost of this, the crackers, both starters, the laab, short rib massaman, and rice, the food element is just over £50. Add the service and a bottle of wine you’re looking at about £45 a head between two. Birmingham, a city that consistently complains about a lack of mid-range options, now has a bloody good one hand-delivered to you by moi. I know, you’re welcome.