Singburi, 593 High Rd Leytonstone, London E11 4PA
Singburi: Don’t Forget the Magnums
Someone behind us moves to the front, making it apologetically clear that they’re asking about cancellations and not jumping the queue, acutely aware that all the eyes are on them. Rejected, they scurry out the door. A small lady trundles up to us with a tattered notepad, scowling in an attempt to hear better. "Name?" she jabs. "Sam" I reply and am immediately right-hooked with a "your table isn’t ready yet" and shown the palm of her hand.
Waiting out on the street, you can feel the hum of satisfied commotion inside; tables strewn with stacked plates, divided by a wonky palisade of wine and beer bottles, over which other plates are lifted high in offering to the person opposite. This is Singburi.
Then we get the signal: Thelma aka Notepad Lady, beckons. After ninety-seven call attempts to their single phone line and a six-week wait, we’re finally through the doors of the Leytonstone institution. Clinking with bottles and rustling with cash, we take our seats and do the apparently standard thing of ordering the entire specials board which is propped up just outside the kitchen. Without even batting an eye, our waitress follows up with "double rice, yeah?" With insistent nods all around, we get to sloshing out holiday pours; the walls flickering from an elongated window throwing out shadows cast by the flames inside, more reminiscent of a blacksmith than a kitchen.
Clams with roasted chilli jam and holy basil
The dishes come as and when without mercy; unceremoniously plonked onto the table but always with beaming smiles in tow. Clams, their shells glazed in roasted chilli jam are wreathed in the ethereal anise of holy basil and ripe for the picking; moo krob that’s the platonic ideal of crispy pork belly — burnished, striated chunks charged with chilli; sai ua that’s absolutely packed with pork and mingled with bright kefir lime leaves with a sludge of bitter gourd dip on the side and golden tassels of tempura enoki mushrooms that shatter into supple umami.
Moo krob. Just hook it to thy veins
"moo krob that’s the platonic ideal of crispy pork belly — burnished, striated chunks"
Sai ua and bitter gourd dip
The 3D electricity that is the yam som o salad, as bitter with pomelo as it is sour with lime and ablaze with chilli; a deep bowl of tom jued dok mai brimming with lotus root, chicken and wood ear lurking in its amber depths. A burly but refreshing yam neua, vital with soft herbs and popping with grape around blushing slices of deeply-seared beef. All the while we’re scooping at a restorative mound of tacky-to-the-touch salted fish fried rice, punctuated with shallot and chillies. A bowl of roughly chopped cabbage slicked in pork fat is a gleaming tribute to the keto Gods followed by an ivory-eyed steamed sea bass lazing in a syrupy, tamarind puddle and thatched with coriander that is so outrageously tender, that a spoon suddenly becomes a scalpel.
Yam som o salad is 3D electricity
Tom jued dok mai ft. Double Rice
"I've always hated the mollycoddling dynamics of customer service...Singburi has no time for it and rightly so."
Burly but refreshing yam neua
The torrent of dishes is made all the more intense due to my comparatively rubbish knowledge of Thai food; I’m completely out of my depth at Singburi and couldn’t be more ecstatic. I’m blissfully busting cherries of ignorance with almost every dish.
Thelma is dutifully doing the rounds, letting each table know that the kitchen is closing soon so everybody needs to get their last orders in. Having failed to catch her eye on her patrol, I finally do so as she stands watch over her domain. Motioning Thelma to come over, she stands fast — shaking her head before that cheeky grin appears.
It's time to break out the big guns. Miming the casting of a fishing line over to her like a cheesy 70's disco move, she still won't budge until I feign a struggle with which suddenly she wiggles into life; arms pinned to her sides, hands fluttering like fins as she bobs her way over to us.
I think I love her.
Asking if we could order some ice cream as we’ve never had taro or durian, we’re promptly told "no" point-blank because we "still have three courses to go" and "shouldn’t be so greedy" with a wry smile and wagging finger. I’m getting told off and all without fear of Yelp or social media reprisal; a liberal dressing-down from the matriarch — and I’m absolutely loving it. I've always hated the mollycoddling, often somewhat overwrought, dynamics of customer service; the expectation of bending to every whim that often lies outside of time, space and reason. People might say this is a total put-off, but you could equally argue that she's ultimately looking out for her staff and customers by extension.
“If you want ice cream, Tesco has Magnums — you can get me one too!” smirks Thelma before turning on her heel, signifying that the lull is over as our final lot of dishes arrive. In comes a gaeng ped gai skimping on neither bamboo nor liver chunks and is so fragrant, it feels as if you’re inhaling extra years onto your life. Then moo pad prik Thai, humming with ginger root and tumbled with searing chilli that's absent of forgiveness. Finally, the cod jungle curry hits the table and, thanks to cockily ordering extra steamed rice, we can’t handle it and so bag it up like a loser to take home.
Gaeng ped gai: or what Kath and Kim might call, a great hunk of chunk
I sidle up to Thelma who’s totting up bills in a nook stacked with paperwork. "You probably hear this all the time, but that was great". "Yes" she chirps, her eyes not breaking from the calculations. “What’s your favourite flavour of Magnum, then?” Instantly turning toward me, Notepad Lady is suddenly all bashful smiles and sparkles. “Oh, milk chocolate!". I return to see Thelma still fixed to her nook and slide the frosty boxes onto the corner of her table. Grasping them with crossed arms she swears to share them, giggling all the while.
Heading through the back to the loos I see Sirichai, head chef and son of Notepad Lady finally sat down, spooning salt fish rice into his knackered body — the post-service thousand-yard-stare having taken hold. He reminds me of the musicians I’d bother backstage for plectrums as a kid, totally unaware that the last thing they want is to be talking to anyone. Despite feeling like I’ve already taken the piss, I head to the bathroom.
Moo pad prik Thai: it cares not
It’s little wonder how this place is packed to the gills every night. Singburi embodies a strain of self-esteem that you’d find attractive in any potential mate — born of absolute confidence in the goods with a total disregard for what you think of them. Infantilised by the chasm in my knowledge of Thai cuisine, I came away from Singburi more invigorated to write than ever. Angela Hui is quoted on the menus as saying that Singburi is ‘always an education' and, although it feels a bit like your sherpa commenting on the incline in the same way a tradesman looks at a leak, it’s also a relief knowing that a Singburi veteran feels this way.
"Singburi always feels like a treat, perhaps aided by the relative schlep to get there"
But perhaps more than the food is the nature of interaction at Singburi: it’s culinary kitchen sink realism. There’s no pandering to the punter’s whims or lengthy explanations of ‘How The Menu Works™'. Save for a few locals, Leytonstone is some journey for most and I think this positively charges the atmosphere as a result, as being able to score a booking puts everyone in their best mood. It’s the sort of place where you can be caught groaking at the adjacent table’s plate and they’ll lock eyes and smile, nodding knowingly and share your excitement in wanting to order it.
I realise the last thing Singburi and their besieged phoneline need is more coverage, but here it is. I chase the idea of authenticity rabidly in London and Singburi, as far as I can glean from people more worldly than me, is precisely that. Booking a table here conjures a childlike excitement because I'll either have the opportunity to try a completely new dish, or experience one all over again.
Although Singburi always feels like a treat, perhaps aided by the relative schlep to get there, the feeling is magnified when taking people for their first time. Rather than sitting with a stomach of frayed nots hoping everyone enjoys it like when people ask you to put on your favourite album in First Year, the whole meal unfolds in the way a feast should; a serotonin-lubed clamour, punctuated with clinks of metal, ceramics and glass. To say nothing of the excruciatingly incredible value of the entire affair. Just don’t forget the Magnums.
Do it for Thelma. Even if the number and size of Magnums in a box today potentially amount to an insult.