Caroline Street’s Malai calls itself a Thai takeaway. That sells it short: although indoor space is limited to three little tables, they are well worth nabbing. The draw is the £6.99 Lunch Special menu, rather charmingly handwritten in the window.
It couldn’t be less like the similarly green and gold-liveried The Ivy, visible from the door (though you don’t come here to be seen, or gurn in front of flower walls; you come here to eat well and cheaply) or the chain opening soon, 5 metres away. We’ll come back to that.
There’s an impressively expansive menu at lunch. 15 courses served on a plate, no less, at a price point- just £6.99, which includes a bottle of water- that usually means cardboard and fingers. And an expansive definition of ‘lunch’, too, which stretches til 4pm.
That generosity is in the portions, too. Your brief wait is soundtracked by happy percussions of the Thai chef’s wok.
Pad si-ew has a deeper flavour and soy-dark colour than pad thai. Served with potent smoky red chilli flakes on the side- if you’re wary of spice, go easy- this is a hearty plateful, a mound of fat silken curls tossed with chicken, carrots, cabbage and broccoli, salty and subtly sweet, and you have to remind yourself this plateful is costing you just seven pounds in the heart of the city.
Red curry is sour and hot and fragrant and every thing you expect from such a well-known dish, sticky jasmine rice makes for a hearty meal. Singapore noodles- yellow and red peppers, broccoli, cabbage, onions, plump prawns- all that curry powder yellow, keeps the satisfaction hit rate high.
So. Unpromising location, great price, big flavours. That should for it for you. There are some attractive city centre lunch deals from independents- you’ll know about The Potted Pig and Asador 44 already, and Soliciting Flavours has recently enjoyed Casanova too, but this is an altogether different kidney. But here’s another angle.
Busaba, a successful Thai chain, is about to open six or seven metres away in the brewery quarter. I’m sure it’ll be very slick. It is, after all, the company started by Alan Yau, founder of Wagamama and Hakkasan and Yataucha, with multiple locations across London and a website which namechecks Buddhist teachings and Brillat-Savarin. This is a hospitality machine.
I daresay they’ll offer very different experiences and very different pricing. Three-quarters of their small plates/starters will cost you more than lunch at Malai, and their mains double. Their lunch deal is a tenner. It’ll be decent enough, no doubt. But that’s not my point: when it comes to spreading the word, they’ll have the resources to invite a slew of people who, after starting their effusive posts with a picture of them in situ- because, apparently, that’s the main story- will wax semi-lyrical about how amazing and brilliant and delicious and cooked to perfection everything is on opening weekend. There will be multiple pieces from Wales Online. Ditto Rosa’s on Church St.
I don’t know what the Thai equivalent of David and Goliath is. But if you want a handy illustration of the sort of challenge a tiny business like this can face, it’s here. Let’s not neglect our independents in the carpet bombing of inevitable superlatives, and let’s keep rooting for the underdog. Because this is a little slice of the city centre which will feed you well, very humbly and unpretentiously, and which deserves your time: the kind of place you should know about.
Malai Thai Takeaway, 33 Caroline St, Cardiff CF10 1FF Lunch 12-4, all week
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This blog is a very simple thing.
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A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
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