In Australia, we tend to think of food courts as being greatly inferior to 'real' restaurants. This is not an unfair point of view given that every shopping centre food court seems to feature the same selection of generic brands selling the same unexciting chain store products, there is a certain low quality homogeneity to Australian shopping centre food. This presumption does not follow in many Asian countries, with the food courts in Bangkok's shopping malls featuring a plethora of genuinely excellent places to eat. Having decided to ease our way into Bangkok with a stroll through the main shopping malls of Siam Square and Siam Centre, Alissa and I popped into Som Tum Nua for lunch after hearing good things about the quality of their namesake dish - Som Tum, better known in the English speaking world as Papaya Salad.
Som Tum Nua's interior design is very modern and hip, with a focus on nostalgia-inducing children's drawings presented in an artful manner. This is undoubtedly a gentrified sign of the times, and very much on-trend with somewhat hipster design concepts seen in major cities the world over.
The first dish to arrive was a plate of Fried Chicken. Fried Chicken seems to be wildly popular in Bangkok, and these were an excellent example of the dish. The seasoning had a good level of saltiness and spice without having much in the way of chilli heat, which was good given what else was to come. The exterior was nice and crispy, with the meat encased within cooked to succulent, juicy perfection. Simple but effective, this would definitely be a recommended order.
Being something of a chilli fiend who likes when Som Tum's freshness is backed up by fiery chilli heat, I decided to go with the hot version of their signature Som Tum with Pork Crackling. The dish had a good balance of saltiness, umami and freshness, with really great crunch from the slivers of Papaya and the Pork Rinds contrasting nicely against the softness of the slices of Tofu. As much as I have a high chilli tolerance, the extreme chilli burn of this dish really tested me to my limits. Its not unusual for heat to clear my sinuses, but this was so hot my eyes were tearing up, and afterwards taking a bite of the previously mild Fried Chicken tasted like it was the hottest Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken I've ever eaten. Asking for another glass of Iced Lemon Tea only made it worse. As much pain as it caused me to eat, I have to say I was impressed that they didn't hold back on the heat, and it was overall one of the best Papaya Salads I've eaten.
Alissa ordered the milder version of the same dish I ordered. Even this mild version still had a chilli kick, giving Alissa what she referred to as a feeling of 'Angelina Jolie lips' without the tears and cleared sinuses I had experienced. This was probably the more sane choice unless your chilli tolerance is significantly better than mine.
Finally, we ordered a plate of the North Eastern Style Sausage. This was really delicious, having a nice courseness and soft texture combined with a slighty funky fermented flavour that reminded us of something between Cotechino and Lap Cheong, but with a spicy flavour profile that is uniquely Thai (and better than both those other sausages in our honest opinion). I've had these before in Australia and they've never been this good, and it had us still thinking about how tasty they were the next day.
The Verdict: Excellent
Som Tum Nua's reputation as one of the better Som Tum specialists in Bangkok seems to be well deserved; Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed the Som Tums we had ordered, even if the extreme heat of my plate literally brought tears to my eyes. The side dishes of Fried Chicken and North Eastern Style Sausage were both just as essential and delicious orders. To my mind, it did feel like there are still probably even better Som Tum restaurants in Bangkok, however its better than just about anything you're likely to find in Australia outside of the most expensive and/or authentic restaurants. We would highly recommend Som Tum Nua as an affordable lunch option while walking through Siam Centre.