Regular readers will know that my reviews last year, like much of life in 2021, could best be described using that quintessentially post-pandemic word, “hybrid”. Unlike most years, when I’d traipse to a restaurant fortnightly and write about it, last year was a mixture of all sorts – takeaways, from new restaurants and old favourites, a first (unsuccessful) dabble with restaurant DIY kits and later, as the weather improved, “proper” restaurant reviews.
Even those were an eclectic bunch. I made a point of revisiting some of the earliest restaurants I’d reviewed, with varying results. Some, like Pepe Sale and London Street Brasserie, held up nicely despite eight intervening years. Others, like Buon Appetito, had been transformed. And then there was Zero Degrees: pants then, pants now. I also reviewed a couple of places outside Reading, making it as far as Bristol and London. By 2021 standards, that was exotic stuff.
Then there were the new places in Reading. I tried to tick off as many as I could but timing, the vicissitudes of life under Covid and my personal approach to risk meant that many were al fresco visits. That made for a lovely time in the sunshine at O Português, a sublime meal at Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and, towards the end of the year, a game attempt at shivering away outside Gordon Ramsay Street Burger.
But it also meant that my first introduction to some of Reading’s most interesting new places was as takeaways – and however good a takeaway is, it can’t match eating in the restaurant. Part of that’s the atmosphere, the hubbub and people watching. But, more prosaically, there’s the basic fact that your food comes straight to your table from the kitchen, arranged on plates by someone who isn’t you, looking all nice.
So some of last year’s big names are still waiting for a “proper”review. I’m yet to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, for instance, and I feel that’s long overdue. I managed to eat at La’De Kitchen once last year, back in early May when you could only sit outside and it wasn’t yet warm enough to comfortably do so, however many blankets they brought out. But I didn’t review it: I was happy just to be there at all. And, for that matter, too cold.
One of the most noteworthy of the Class of ’21 that I haven’t visited in the flesh is ThaiGrr!: I had their takeaway last May and was blown away by it all. They put so much thought into how they packaged for delivery that I wasn’t sure the gap between eating in and having takeaway would be as marked as it was for, say, Greek or Turkish food. But I was educated on this subject by a regular reader of mine who I bump into most weeks at Blue Collar.
“You need to eat in” he said. “However good you think the fried chicken is at home, it’s miles better in the restaurant.” Given how much I’d liked it from the comfort of my own sofa this was a powerful incentive to pay ThaiGrr a visit, so on a Saturday lunchtime Zoë and I swung by to try it out. It’s in the less fashionable part of town round the back of the Broad Street Mall, on the same strip as Pepe Sale and Bierhaus. I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like the Broad Street Mall has been up and coming for as long as I can recall without ever having upped and came, so to speak.
Perhaps the people who make these claims feel that the arrival of a Taco Bell, along with (at the other end of the spectrum) an independent cinema justify that assessment. But it still feels to me like there’s much to do. The bandwagon-chasing street food market they tried in 2020 closed without fanfare, and now it’s just another abandoned pound shop in an area well served by pound shops. The contrast will be further heightened from this weekend with the opening of Blue Collar Corner, Glen Dinning’s permanent (and very snazzy) street food site; in a year, he’s done more to lift that area than the Broad Street Mall has managed in far, far longer.
Anyway, that carping aside, the ThaiGrr site is really rather appealing. It manages to strike the right balance between being neutral and being sterile: everything is white and clean, but it isn’t soulless. The blurb on the tables explains that ThaiGrr is modelled on a style of restaurant popular in Thailand, and geared around quick meals, whether that’s a lunch break or a grabbing something pre-theatre. That also explains the model, in that a large part of their menu is ready and pre-cooked behind the counter.
In that sense it’s similar to Kokoro I suppose – but ThaiGrr offers more of a restaurant experience, because its specials and sides are cooked to order and everything comes on proper crockery rather than in a cardboard tub. Just as ThaiGrr has thought hard about how to offer takeaway, it has a clear idea of what kind of restaurant it wants to be. As I was to discover, that clarity of purpose largely carried through to the food.
It’s an attractive menu, too. Most of the regular dishes come in two sizes, medium and large with a faintly ridiculous one pound price difference between the two, much like Kokoro. None of them costs more than seven pounds fifty. Again, this is structured in such a way as to be a brisk experience compared to eating in most restaurants: although some of the dishes would clearly be classed as starters elsewhere, here they are are billed as sides. The idea is that you order (and eat) them at much the same time as your main course, and although the food is brought to your table, you order at the counter. It feels – that word again – distinctly hybrid.
I was torn between ordering the dishes I’d so loved the first time round and striking out into undiscovered sections of the menu. In the end, we did a bit of both although our selection was strongly influenced by a couple of things: not being able to miss out on that fried chicken for one, and Zoë’s insistence that she wanted the pork belly dish I’d ordered when I popped my ThaiGrr cherry last year. “I’m having that pork”, she said, with a look I knew all too well: there was no way around it.
Still, no matter. It gave me an incentive to try something different, but looking back all I can see on the menu are other dishes I wish I’d tried. It really is that sort of menu: however carefully you read it the first time, every time you look at it after that you spot at least two more things you would have ordered, on another day. Our order – two mains, three sides and a couple of mineral waters came to thirty-four pounds, which struck me as thoroughly decent value. ThaiGrr doesn’t have an alcohol licence, another pointer that it’s not a place to necessarily linger.
I was told our food would take five to ten minutes, and ten minutes later the dishes started coming to the table, all at once, an embarrassment of riches. The fried chicken was indeed even better than I remembered – six generous pieces of jointed chicken, the skin a brittle, salty delight and the meat underneath beautifully tender. It went nicely with the accompanying sweet chilli sauce, but you were just as well rending it from the bone with your bare hands and properly going for it, Henry VIII-style.
As you can probably tell, despite my understated description, I was a fan. In fact, for my money, this is one of the most joyous things you can order anywhere in Reading right now, and if it even remotely sounds like your kind of thing I think a pilgrimage to ThaiGrr is in order at your earliest convenience. My only regret is that we didn’t order one each: I know that sharing is caring but sometimes, in my book letting someone have a portion to themselves is how you really show love.
The other sides weren’t as good as the fried chicken – but you could apply that description to most of the food I’ve eaten this year, so let’s not hold it against them. The vegetable spring rolls were nicely hefty, greaseless things that managed not to be stodgy and still had a good crunch in a filling that hadn’t been steamed into submission. I don’t seem to be able to talk about spring rolls in a review without mentioning how good they are at Pho, and this week is no exception, but they were still pretty good. They also came with sweet chilli sauce – in fact all the side dishes did – and although I liked it a little variety might have been nice.
Last but not least, the squid wasn’t as impressive as I remembered. But again, that didn’t stop it being better than practically all the squid dishes on offer in Reading (shamefully, my reference for this has always been London chain Busaba’s ‘Thai calamari’, the sole reason I’m sorry they never opened a branch in Reading after all). It was crispy and beautifully cooked, and if it didn’t have the tenderness of truly fresh squid I found that surprisingly easy to forgive. Besides, when dunked in a little sweet chilli sauce those quibbles melted away.
Back in May last year I’d been decidedly smug when I ordered the moo pad prik – the pork belly dish – while Zoë had slummed it with a green Thai curry. This week she got her revenge by picking it, and I was allowed to taste just enough to remember how magical it is. The combination of flavours here was the biggest sign that ThaiGrr was more imaginative and more complex than a lot of Thai restaurants – that blend of heat and citrus, sweetness, sharpness and chilli. The softness of the pork belly, the crunch of the green beans and that sauce, clinging to everything. I did think it wasn’t quite as amazing as that first time, the meat perhaps a tad less tender.
But was that nostalgia talking, or just a coping strategy to fend off food envy? Possibly the latter because my main course was good but not great. I’d chosen the pork pad kra praw, arguably Thailand’s most famous stir fried dish. This was minced pork with holy basil, soy and fish sauce, served with steamed rice and a fried egg, yolk still nicely liquid, on top. I expected great things from this, and perhaps that was the problem – the texture was good, and it had a nicely savoury note from well-judged use of that fish sauce, but I expected a bit more depth, more of a eureka moment.
When I thought how much the other pork dish had wowed me, I expected something similar from this and it just wasn’t there. Sometimes it’s all about timing: if this had been the first dish I’d ever eaten at ThaiGrr I’d probably have been delighted, but sadly they’d raised the bar too high by then. Next time I might bite the bullet and try their laab gai, which I suspect will have all the complexity and intensity the pad kra praw was missing (and, no doubt, some ferocity too). But then again, there are about half a dozen dishes on my hit list, and only so many chances to eat them. And one misfire in a meal – by which I mean that it was quite nice rather than amazing – is no bad going.
The thing that makes ThaiGrr difficult to sum up, let alone rate, is that nowhere in Reading is quite like it. Fast food, with the exception of street food, tends to have negative connotations, as if you’re prepared to make concessions because you’re in a hurry. And if you’re spending more you tend to want to take longer, make an event of it. I would unhesitatingly suggest ThaiGrr if you wanted to eat very good food in a rush, and it’s hardly priced as special occasion food, but the fact remains that the nature of the restaurant makes it slightly on the functional side.
I suppose what this all amounts to is that ThaiGrr is properly great, but ever so slightly niche. The only real comparisons I can think of, in terms of no-frills restaurants doing quick food that’s better than it needs to be, are places like Mission Burrito, Sapana Home and Bhel Puri House. That’s not exactly bad company to be in, and ThaiGrr easily holds its own among those restaurants.
Lots of you won’t be bothered by that, and on many occasions I wouldn’t be either. But the food is so enjoyable that it feels a bit incongruous to be out of the door in half an hour or so wondering what to do with the rest of your evening. And that is possibly the only reason this review isn’t an out and out rave. None the less, next time I’m in a rush or I get off the train from work and can’t be bothered to cook, I know exactly where I’m going. And I’m having that fried chicken, all to myself.
ThaiGrr! – 7.9
1D Queens Walk, Broad Street Mall, Reading, RG1 7QF
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats