If I asked you to rattle off Reading’s longest-running restaurants, the chances are you’d mention London Street Brasserie. The Bina and Quattro too, over in Caversham. I’d expect you to talk about Pepe Sale, that’s a given. You might get bonus points for remembering McDonalds – the Friar Street one has been going since the Eighties – or for saying “of course, until recently there was also the branch of Pizza Hut in the Oracle”. Perhaps you’d bring up cafés like the Gorge or Rafina: the latter, in particular, is one of the last signs of pre-Oracle Reading, and hasn’t changed a huge amount in the intervening years. And, naturally, many of you might namedrop Sweeney & Todd, which has been trading for an incredible forty-four years, longer than some of you have been alive.
But would you remember Thai Corner?
The reason I ask is that often it slips my mind. It’s one of those places that feels like it has been there forever, and will be there forever, but that means it can fade into the background when you’re deciding what to eat, or talking about what Reading used to be like. By my reckoning it’s been open for nearly twenty years; I remember what was there before, an unspecial French place called Bistrot Vino, and I went there once for a Bohemian Night spinoff, but other than that it’s been Thai Corner for, well, forever.
I reviewed it back in 2014, when my blog was a mere six months old, and even then it was an old stager, having celebrated over a decade at the top of West Street. And by the time I reviewed it, it had probably already achieved that feat of fading into the background. Thai food has always been a reliable go to in this country – probably inauthentic, never amazing, rarely terrible – but it’s never had a moment where it was the hot new thing. And so Thai Corner, for those ten years and the eight that followed, has just carried on doing what it did best, whether you noticed or not.
Back before I started this blog it was a proper happy place for me, as frequently visited as the likes of Dolce Vita, and somewhere I could go on date nights or with friends visiting Reading for dinner. I had my staple dishes I always ordered – weeping tiger, sirloin steak with garlic and coriander, or pla chuchi, salmon steak with red curry sauce – and a red wine I always drank, and I never went away less than full or happy. It was a sure thing, in that way people think chains are, and I loved it there.
Anyway, the years moved on, and by the time I reviewed it for the blog I was a lapsed member of the congregation. I liked it just fine, although it didn’t knock my socks off, and my review at the time was full of faint praise in a way which, with hindsight, looks a tad condescending (so unlike me, I know). Haven’t you done well not to be closed yet? it seems to say. 2014 me had forgotten, I think, how much 2004 me liked the place. And 2022 me looked back at that and thought it was high time to go again.
Besides, I ended my previous review of Thai Corner saying “a big part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t still around in another ten years”. Why wait until 2024, especially when you can’t guarantee any hospitality business will survive until then? So I headed there with Zoë one evening for an early dinner, to see what I made of it.
It remains, as it’s always been, a handsome, grown-up looking room. The furniture is all dark wood, light-coloured pillars break up the space and in the middle is a surprisingly tasteful water feature, with flowers floating in it, which in no way resembles a birdbath. The tiled walls are tasteful, the colour palette is muted and chic. Zoë summed it up better than I could: “it looks like a hotel restaurant”, she said, and it does. We nabbed a table in the window, to make the most of the remaining daylight, but the truth is that this is a room for after dark, for cosiness and conspiracy. It will come into its own in the coming months.
The menu was also largely as I remember it, and if the prices have nudged slightly since I was last at Thai Corner they were still on the reasonable side. Starters were seven or eight pounds, curries and stir-fries start at eleven. As I sat looking out on the room I saw a member of staff coming down from upstairs with a huge plastic sack full of vivid red prawn crackers.
And looking at the menu had that Proustian effect, as I remembered all the things I’d ordered here over the years, and the people I’d ordered them with. Birthday celebrations, Friday nights out or just evenings when you finished work in the town centre, young and carefree, and wanted somebody else to take care of you. It felt, at the time, like most of my thirties were made up of those evenings. I remembered all those meals with friends no longer in my life, but all connected by the invisible thread of this restaurant.
It’s a running joke that I have a failure of imagination in Thai restaurants and usually kick off by ordering the mixed starters, something I usually defend by saying that it’s a great way to try as many dishes as possible. Well, why change the habit of a lifetime? I have to say though that the rewards were much greater this time around, with most of the starters having experienced a step-change in my time away.
Spring rolls had a good greaseless crispness, and it was an interesting choice to have them full of vermicelli noodles rather than the standard issue carrots and beansprouts – still not at the standard of Pho’s (although little is) but not half bad. Chicken skewers had good texture and colour and went nicely with a deep peanut sauce. On previous visits the mixed starters had included Thai fishcakes, which I know aren’t universally loved (“spongy mattress” isn’t a texture to everybody’s taste) but these had been swapped out for crispy squid, and if they weren’t super-tender they still represented a significant upgrade.
But best of all were the golden prawn toasts – huge, irregular, bronzed specimens, far more prawn than bread, with a tantalising carpet of sesame crunch on top. Next time, I’d be sorely tempted to order some to myself. Eight pounds per head for this little crash course felt like good value, and I imagine in bigger groups it would also present significant horse trading opportunities.
To try and atone for my predictable starter choice we also asked for some larb gai, minced chicken salad, to come at the same time. The one thing I know about “authentic” Thai food, which I suspect I’ve never tried, is that it’s hot. Really hot. Face-meltingly, agonisingly so: if you go somewhere like Paddington’s The Heron or Hammersmith’s Khun Pakin you’re likely to find yourself eating something that dives into the grey area between pleasure and pain. The only dishes I’ve found in Reading’s Thai restaurants that even approach that are the salads, and Thai Corner’s larb gai is a great example.
It starts innocuously, and you appreciate the clean complexity of it. The freshness of the minced chicken, the healthy whack of lime and what feels like a little funky saltiness – from fish sauce, I imagine. You notice the slight nutty crunch of the ground rice running through it, too. And you get a tingle of heat, but nothing you can’t manage. And it probably stays that way for a minute or so, and then you realise you’re heading into trouble. A few forkfuls later you can feel the sharp spikes of chilli on the tip of your tongue – not a numbing, benevolent heat like, say, Kungfu Kitchen’s shredded chicken, but a stabbing, vengeful heat. Strategic pauses don’t help it subside, and nor do water or beer.
And at this point you do one of two things: you abandon it, as Zoë did (“that’s too fucking much” were her exact words) or you press on, knowing that it hurts in a compelling, completely alien way but that you also don’t want it to end. For all I know Thai Corner’s larb gai is also on the mild side, watered down slightly for a Reading clientele. If so, a big part of me hopes I never bump into its evil twin in a dark restaurant somewhere. But it was astonishing, and I’m so glad I ordered it: if you go to Thai Corner, and you feel brave, try it too. As our waitress took away the empty dish I tried to tell her how much I’d enjoyed it, with what little voice I had left. She probably took one look at me and thought I’d ordered it by mistake but was too polite to say.
This is probably a good time to mention what we drank, because the second of the two mocktails (yes, I know) I tried had a beautifully cooling effect in the aftermath of Hurricane Salad. The “Cocolada” was a soothingly tropical mixture of coconut, cream, vanilla and pineapple and it might well have saved my life – and quite aside from that, it tasted exquisite. I also tried a “Sand Island” which was like a classy Lilt (although, to be honest, I quite like good old-fashioned unclassy Lilt) and was also extremely nice. They put some work into these, and for a fiver each they felt like an interesting way to stay off the units.
Mains came out a little more swiftly than I’d normally choose, but the restaurant was quiet and I didn’t mind the meal being a little rushed. Pla chuchi, that dish I’d ordered so many times all those years ago, was almost exactly as I remembered – a single, crispy piece of salmon which broke apart easily, smothered in a glorious, glossy red curry sauce. I found it hugely comforting that it had barely changed, and in Zoë it found a new convert (“I’m coming here again, and I’m having one of these to myself when I do” she pronounced between mouthfuls). If I’m being critical I’m not sure what the random florets of broccoli were doing there, and with a dish where sauce is king it would have been nice to have a deeper bowl to make it easier to scoop it all up. If they’d brought a spoon to do the scooping that would have been nice, too.
Our second dish was their chilli lamb, which by weird coincidence I also ordered the last time I reviewed Thai Corner. Was it reassuring or unsettling that it too had changed so little? I couldn’t make up my mind, but I’d enjoyed it last time and I really enjoyed it this time too. The sauce had a nice savoury depth, there was plenty of lamb and all of it was tender, the green beans lent texture and firmness. It was, I’d say, a better looking plate of food than its 2014 ancestor, but again it needed a deeper bowl to make the last of that sauce easier to get to. We poured it onto our coconut rice (always my favourite accompaniment to Thai food, though I miss the days when Thai Corner served it in a slightly ersatz coconut shell).
One thing I would say is that neither of these dishes packed much in the way of heat. That may be because my taste receptors had been brutally battered into submission by what went before, but I don’t think so. And what’s more, the chilli lamb had two chillies next to it on the menu, that larb gai only one, which suggests an even more inconsistent approach to rating than Shirley Ballas (and if you’re watching Strictly this year, you’ll know that’s saying something).
So yes, if you go expecting authentically spicy Thai food Thai Corner may not be for you, or you may need to make a point of asking them not to hold back. If you did, I’m sure they would do it, because the service from all three wait staff who looked after us was top notch – smiley, pleasant and attentive. Service has always been good there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few of them had served me before. Although Thai Corner has expanded its dessert menu (the days of the laminated card of frozen delights including the interestingly named “Funky Pie” are a thing of the past) the only dessert I fancied, mango with sticky rice, was off the menu that night. So we paid our bill – ninety-four pounds for two, with a 10% service charge included – and headed out into the evening.
More than usual, I find it difficult assigning an arbitrary mark to this particular restaurant. You can try and rob yourself of your preconceptions, with mixed success, but you can’t wipe out your memories, Eternal Sunshine style. What would I think of Thai Corner if I’d never been? I’m not sure, and all I’m left with is the warm glow of nostalgia, which would push a mark up, and an equal and opposite feeling that I’ve seen it before, which would have the converse effect. I asked Zoë, who doesn’t have my history with the place, and she rather enjoyed it and would like to go back.
As for me, I find one thing hasn’t changed since 2014: I am happy Thai Corner is still going strong, I am grateful for that part it’s played in my life, if not necessarily my gastronomic education, and I fully hope it will still be trading in another eight years, whether I am reviewing restaurants by then or not. I do wonder, though, whether they ever daydream about dialling down the flavours a little less and letting the almighty wallop of that larb gai spread across the rest of the menu. But what do I know? You don’t trade for the best part of two decades by taking non-stop risks. I can’t help but admire that.
Thai Corner – 7.3
47 West Street, RG1 1TZ