With the return to the office slowly gathering pace (backsliding aside, which is by the day becoming more and more likely 😒), I am back on the look out for places to go for lunch.
Quality of the food and price are my main criteria in terms of any search (strictly in that order) and Malai, a newish Thai place, on Caroline Street in the City centre seemed to very much hit the brief.
It is on the site of what was, I believe, Colin’s Books (away a bit of an anomaly on Caroline Street – was there much call for a dirty mag with your filthy kebab I wonder). The repurposing of the site from porn to prawn is welcome change I would say!
I am a big fan of Thai food which, when done well, combines seemingly disparate elements (salt, sweet, sour and spicy heat) into a harmonious whole.
Seemingly a bit out of kilter with the chippies and kebab operators that dominate Caroline Street, Malai is a welcome “no chips here” (not being of Welsh origin “arf and arf” has always baffled me – if Greg “the Egg” Wallace favours something, I know I am generally on the right track in not doing so) addition to Caroline Street (AKA Chippy Lane) and has been joined (just across the street) by a chain Thai outfit in the form of Busaba Eathai (no idea what it is like, seems to have a decent pedigree, but I am sure the “Gram” will tell me it is “Thai to die for!” soon enough).
It may, regardless of other views, be interesting to compare the two rather contrasting outfits (if I can be arsed to go to the latter) in due course, which was a win for the indie in terms of Pho and Hanoi 1991 in my book.
Predominately operating as a takeaway, Malai offers a seemingly very nicely priced lunch menu.
For £6.99 you get a pretty expansive (but certainly not expensive) choice
covering a fair wide range of what Thai cuisine (one of the world’s great cuisines in my view) has to offer. Very expansive interpretation of lunch (time wise) too, with it covering 12.00 – 16.00 everyday. Can’t say much fairer than that can you.
Whilst the temptation was to go for the more familiar, such as pad thai or a green curry, a very underrated (at least to me in the UK) aspect of Thai cuisine is their soups. It is an integral part of the cuisine but oft passed on in the UK in terms of ordering Thai. As a general observation the Brits, the English in particular, have a rather dismissive view of soup.
Despite it being one of the oldest and most universal of foods, soup is very much an after thought item to a lot of Brits, with the hideously sweet Heinz tomato soup by far the biggest seller.
In terms of eating out, it is often spurred if seen on a menu and when did you last have soup at home as a main part of a meal rather than a quick “I can’t be arsed” lunch? Not many times I would hazard a guess.
Wales is perhaps a bit different in its regard for soup, with cawl its national dish, but I think many here regard that as distinct from your common all garden soups.
In Thai cuisine, soups are a revered and integral part of many a meal. Tom Yum may be the most famous, but there are plenty of other perhaps less well known options. These include the coconut heavy dish of Tom Kha (kha being galangal – not to be confused with ginger) which includes (unlike Tom Yum) coconut milk.
I have a love hate relationship with coconut. Personally I think every single Bounty Bar (vile things) on the planet should be loaded into a giant rocket and fired into the centre of the Sun, with the factories that made them burnt to the ground and the earth salted. I, on the other hand, love a coconut milk based curry.
Can’t recall, on my visits to Thailand, ever having a Tom Kha, so on seeing it on the menu here I ordered it.
Traditionally it is made with the addition of chicken, but there are seafood and veggie variation (as are on offer here).
I decided to go for chicken (thus making it tom kha gai) and what I got was a very hearty portion indeed, if slightly insipid looking,
with loads of chicken and veggies.
Due to soups lowly position on the food chain, I suspect some will say £6.99 for a bowl of soup is hardly a bargain. If I said it was a hearty stew then I suspect the £6.99 price tag would elicit more “oohs” in terms of value.
This was no mingy bowl of thin gruel and it also came with a bountiful mound of steamed rice, which I drop most of into the soup.
£6.99 for the whole shebang was excellent value for the quantity and it certainly delivered on the flavour front.
Sweet coconut, a salty umami hit from enough (but not too much) fish sauce, chilli oil heat and lovely spicing from an abundance of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf and fresh coriander. Be prepared to fish out a fair few of the latter lot from your teeth.
Despite the abundance of coconut there was a lovely tangy salty sour hit to this dish, which made it really lip smackingly tasty.
This soup sat very much on the border lands between soup and stew, with the level of liquid here being the key differentiator from a stew. Make no mistake this will fill, all but the most gluttoninous, up for the day as your main meal.
Very hearty, it made for an absolutely cracking lunch.
My mate went more mainstream and ordered the pad thai (looked bit more like a pad keemow to me, with a darker colour than I am use to in terms of a pad thai but I am no expert)
I didn’t try it, but it looked a very decent portion and he said it hit all the right boxes on the flavour front in terms of sweet, savoury and sour. Heat can be applied to your own tastes, with a mound of dry chilli flakes on the side if the plate (along with ground peanut).
For your £6.99, you also get a bottle of water.
Don’t be put off by the rather rustic exterior and back to basics interior.
It is primarily a takeaway, offering a much more expansive takeaway menu, with a mere three tables for eat in at lunch times. As such, the focus is not on aesthetics for those that eat in.
If you walk past this place and there is a free table then my advice is snaffle it pronto as you are guaranteed a pretty good Thai meal at a bargain basement price.
How it will fair as against its more sparkly, big money, neighbour? I don’t know, but Busaba will be doing very well to come close to the great value this place offers. A bowl of Tom Yum or Tom Khao soup in Busaba, by comparison, cost £11.70. Although to be fair the set lunch menu is, a pretty competitive, tenner.
Malai rather reminds me of Woker Shaker, another cracking “hole in the wall” place, in terms of the very good price to quality ratio it offers.
All in all I would say this place has to be one of the best value “eat in” lunches in town at the moment.
Would I go back? Absolutely – plenty on the menu to try and who can resist the combo of quality, quantity and great value that Malai offers.
Kudos, as always, to the Plate Licked Clean for unearthing this little gem for us city centre workers.
Address: 33 Caroline Street Cardiff, CF10 1FF.