One of life’s little ironies is that the cuisines of some majority-Buddhist countries can also be the least vegetarian friendly. Thai food is a case in point, as most dishes centre around pork, chicken, or seafood (or seafood-derived stock/sauce). Frustrating. More so because Thai food has a delicious, aromatic edginess that is unparalleled amongst other Asian cuisines. The blanketing, medicinal comfort of lemongrass and coconut milk; the uplifting freshness of coriander, lime, and basil; the dangerous volatility of red and green chilli; the perfumed delicateness of jasmine rice… It’s a beautiful, invigorating balance of flavours that makes the effort needed to order a vegetarian Thai meal almost always a battle worth fighting.
It’s this mindset that brings me back time and again to the Golden Mile Complex, Singapore’s “Little Thailand”. As much known for its girly bars, pulsating music, and coach services North as it is its food, Golden Mile is usually an adequate imitation of the real thing. Sort of.
Nong Khai Beer House, located on the ground floor of Golden Mile, ambushes prospective patrons with something of a locational pincer movement. It’s difficult to overlook as it occupies two premises, each facing the other on either side of the busy atrium. It’s open and noisy and full of tables of working girls getting their fill of chicken feet before clocking in. I have been here a few times before, and so have a feel for how far one can push the limits of vegefication (important given that nothing on the menu is vegetarian at first sight).
Indeed, the servers are usually quite friendly and accommodating to our requests. But not so this time. Our waitress – a ghoulishly made-up Thai woman – did an excellent job of making us feel as unwelcome as possible the moment we sat down (“No vegetariaaaaan! No vegetariaaaan!”). She soured the experience from the get-go, and provided a premonition of the bilge we were about to be served.
The green curry (SGD 12.00) is a go-to order when visiting NK, as they can easily rustle up a vegetarian version, which is usually quite tasty. Not so this time. Our bowl hosted a watery concoction of mangy-looking runner beans, basil leaves, and baby eggplants. Such frugality of presentation carried through to the flavours – or flavour – which was searingly-hot chilli. So hot it not only numbed the mouth, but thickened and scratched the throat as well. No kaffir lime, lemongrass, coconut milk, or galangal; just fire. A good green curry should be smooth and aromatic, but with an unmistakeable edge. This was nothing but edge, seasoned with spite.
The phad thai (SGD 9.00) is another regular order of ours, and is usually done quite well. Again, not so this time. This turned out to be little more than greasy fried noodles, seasoned with tamarind for colour and a hint of sourness, some egg, and beansprouts. And that was it. No lime, no peanut, not even a sprinkling of sugar to deceive the palate into thinking that the meal was cooked with at least some consideration for the consumer. Just rubbery noodles that tasted borderline rancid. This was an insult to Thai grub, and cemented our decision to not come back here again.
Having visited this place a few times, I know that we caught Nong Khai on a bad day. But still, the insolence of the waitress, the flagrant economising of both dishes, and the overarching sense of hostility has converted me from net promoter to passionate detractor. Thank god for Tiger beer, without which the food would have been inedible.
Nong Khai Beer House
#01-73-74 Golden Mile Complex, 5001 Beach Road