Mediocre Food. Colorful curbside tables and crowd. Troublesome health/hygiene conditions. Don’t understand why it seems to have a legion of fans. But then again, I never thought quality, value and popularity were always in sync when it comes to Manila’s many restaurants. This is one carinderia/hawker stand/restaurant we are not likely to eat at again anytime soon.
Mrs. MM and I decided to have Sunday lunch out today, and wanted to try a restaurant we had never eaten in before. Some friends had mentioned Som’s Noodle House, so we decided to check out their Makati branch. Located on a side street right near the Power Plant Mall at Rockwell, this carinderia/hawker style place has been open for 5 years and is apparently wildly popular and attracts a large crowd of office workers, neighbors, village matrons, young professionals, Ateneo students at both lunch and dinner. In other words, it’s where real Louis Vuitton would almost certainly brush shoulders with the 168 versions that cost 1/50th the amount. This was a good sign for us, as it wasn’t about the crowd, so we figured it must be about the food.
You order at a streetside counter which is three feet in front of the kitchen which was probably carved out of the home’s old garage. Tarpualins and laminated menus list out the dishes on offer, and once you order and pay, you grab a table and wait for your food. The plastic tables and chairs are set up right on the street and curb directly in front of the restaurant. We wondered how neighbors could put up with the traffic, noise, hubbub and inconvenience caused by such a set-up given that the street is presumably for public use and it is seemingly permanently hi-jacked for a private money making enterprise. But this still had no bearing at all on the food that was to emerge from the kitchen, so we just went with the flow. I have eaten at quite a few hawker/streetside/value priced places around Southeast Asia so the ambience itself wasn’t a deal breaker. I also lived temporarily in Bangkok for several months so I do have a thing for Thai food.
Though we were only 2, we ordered enough for 3 or even 4 people and at PHP930++ or so adjusted for additional drinks, it came out to roughly PHP250-300 per person equivalent. Not cheap, but certainly not expensive. After a 20-25 minute wait (and we got there early, and before the crowds arrived), we got our food. They had no red curry sauce available, so we got green duck curry instead. It had the consistency of sludge, with curdled coconut milk, and devoid of much curry flavor at all. It had a very generous amount of duck meat, some grapes and other vegetables, but it had little if any hint of kaffir lime leaves, basil, chillies, etc. At best, I would say it was muddled, drowned, indistinguishable. Duck is best in red curry, in my opinion, and perhaps we should have tried this dish with chicken instead, but if the curry concoction was anything like this, it wouldn’t have passed muster. Even given the comparatively reasonable Makati prices, this wouldn’t have rated more than a 6.0 out of 10.0, and that’s being kind.
Next up was the shredded green papaya salad. The order taker had asked me if I wanted it spicy or mild and I said medium spicy. Gosh, if this was medium spicy, I should have ordered super, super, super spicy instead. The salad looked good, it just didn’t have the authentic elements of a real Som Tam. I don’t cook Thai food all that often, but I did do a Som Tam last year or so and it was far better than this sweet pallid version. In this case, the overriding flavor wasn’t coriander, chilli or shrimp paste, it was SUGAR. Imagine shredded papaya doused in sugar water with a few other Som Tam ingredients thrown in. It was a nice sweet papaya salad, just not a great Som Tam, by any measure. Another 6.0 out of 10.0, considering it’s PHP70 price.
Next up was a plate of fried calamari. Not sure what made this Thai other than a sweet chili sauce it was served with, but it was a pretty good plate of fried calamari. If you could get over the huge pieces, it was relatively tender and nicely battered and fried. At 7.0/10.0 for a PHP300 price tag, Marketman and Mrs. MM are being generous. And we acknowledge there was very little Thai about this dish.
A large serving dish of Pad Thai or noodles arrived next. Horrific. Rather sweet, bizarrely orange tinted noodles with some blobs of egg and served with chopped peanuts. If it’s true this place is owned by a Thai chef, I am surprised this dish emerges from the kitchen as is. My only theory is that this isn’t about being Thai or authentic, this is about delivering a very sweetified version of Thai dishes for an audience that LIKES/PREFERS it sweet. Maybe we missed out on something, but we should have told the order taker we could handle quite a bit of chili on all of the dishes if appropriate. Pad Thai rated a 4.0/10.0.
Last to arrive was the Tom Yum or prawn sour/spicy soup. I will say that at least this had some sharp flavor notes, real lemongrass, tomatoes, etc. but again it had NO SPICE at all. In fact, it was almost sweetish sour if you can fathom that. A real disappointment, at say 5.5/10.0 in our view. Individual servings of steamed rice were surprisingly small, it’s a good thing I got extra right at the start. The more we pondered the meal in front of us, the more it became plainly obvious we were not thrilled about it in the least. We expected Thai food, and what we got was almost certainly better described as Thai food for a sweet Pinoy palate. I have no idea how this place could be so incredibly popular, and yes, I am prepared to be in the minority here as it does seem that Som’s has a large loyal following of diners. I might wager that if the bulk of them ever had a chance to dine at a streetside hawker stall in Thailand, they would have steam coming out of their ears… But it isn’t just the spice, it is the use and balance of such wonderful distinct flavor notes as provided by fish sauce, coriander, lemongrass, lime, lime leaves, shrimp pastes, etc that make Thai cuisine what it is. Overall, despite it’s humble location and comparatively low prices, I think a 5.50/10.0 is our personal rating for Som’s Noodle House. And yes, this is based on only one visit and five dishes, as we have no desire to go back and give it another try… So take this as personal opinion only, not a comprehensive review.
Finally, a note on hygiene. I realize small carinderias and neighborhood eateries are cut a lot of slack from what are existing health, safety and hygiene regulations, but I am still surprised that with the brisk business Som’s is doing (possibly more than some mall based restaurants), that it doesn’t upgrade their faciilties just a tad to meet some basic condiitions. For example, it seems their kitchens or food prep areas in the converted garage aren’t even screened, so the multitude of flies buzzing all over the place have an easy way in. Also since they now have several branches all around Manila, and the branch we ate at is in its FIFTH year of operation, I think it’s fair to expect that they meet the same basic hygiene conditions that are expected of other restaurant establishments. As we were leaving, a rustle in the nearby bushes was followed by a HUGE scurrying rat in broad daylight. I know there are rats all over Manila, including in some malls and homes, and this one may have nothing to do with Som’s, but this wasn’t exactly the right visual to leave with. :(