The stretch of Bukit Timah that runs between the Hwachong group of schools and Serene Centre – or between Kah Kee and Botanic Gardens stations, by the new reckoning – is a bit of a mixed zone, an intersection of markets. The food joints of the area leaned in two directions, depending on their target audience – wealthy expats on one hand (Choupinette), students on the other (Cosy Corner).
But just by looking at Thai Noodle House, there’s no telling which way they are inclined. In fact you can hardly see anything of the restaurant from outside for the glazed glass; inside, newspaper clippings and photos of food share wall space with a portrait of King Chulalongkorn. The chatter is in Thai, as are the videos that they watch on the handphones when there are no customers (actually, also when there are many customers).
For Thai Noodle House has been here quite a long time – ever since my days here as a student – and I don’t really recall it changing that much, bar probably new licks of paint and nicer looking menus. It is, quite consciously, a product of its country. The wait staff watch Thai dramas and chat to each other in the native tongue during the lulls. And so this extends to the food, which doesn’t fuss around with regional cuisine, or the cuisine of the nobility. It’s… well, it’s Thai food. It’s what you’ve always known as Thai food.
Which is a fair enough attitude – in Thailand you don’t have to be rolling in it to eat dishes that are complex blends of flavour. That they are a tropical country with terrain of all sorts means they’ve always had the whole gamut of flavours to work with. In the green mango salad, all the flavours are go-getters – the nippy sourness of the julienned mangoes, deep, weighty fish sauce, flares of chili and crunchy deep fried peanuts. It is as bold and flashy a green dish as any.
In fact, the greens are a lot bolder in flavour than the meat dish I tried, good old basil minced pork. I cook this a lot myself, so much so I’ve just bought basil plants to save money, and so perhaps I’m biased. But besides the wok hei, the version at Thai Noodle House seems rather muted to me, as if the punchy, sharp elements have all been sanded down a bit.
But in other dishes, like the dry beef noodles, the roundness is a virtue. The oddity is that despite the Thai-ness of the rest of the menu, the eponymous dish is basically pho with slight tweaks – sweeter and leaning more on cassia and anise, in the southern Vietnamese style. But there are none of the usual garnishes – instead, green chilies pounded in vinegar and dried chili flakes that smell inviting but pack a lasting, ferocious burn. But while the noodles here have all clumped together and take a little work to separate, the meats are lovely – taut meatballs and thin slices blanched accurately, as well as a round of flank the colour of wood, fall-apart tender beef around springy tendons.
It’s not just beef either. Equally braised to the right texture are the pork trotters, chopped up and served on rice. I would like to think that the price justifies a bit more pork than I got, but what I do get is still good – wobbly and stretchy, mostly skin as trotters are. The braising sauce is rather sweeter than what the Chinese would do, heavier too on the dried herbs. Paired with lettuce and a vinegary chili sauce, it’s a reasonable lunch.
So where exactly does Thai Noodle House lie? The fact is that while it looks like a student place, it doesn’t charge like one (unless you’re an actual student, lucky person); the prices are rather closer to those at certain Thai chain restaurants that have spread over Singapore’s shopping malls like so many mycelia. But the quality is several notches above those. The food here is good enough, bursting with flavour, and just normal.
Maybe, besides the usual respect for the Thai monarchy, there is some intended symbolism in the choice of royal portrait. For after all King Chulalongkorn managed to preserve the independence of his people at a time when neighbouring lands were falling into colonial hands like so many ripe durians. In a neighbourhood which is being swept up in increasing variations of waffles, coffee brewing processes and Eggs bleeding Benedict, Thai Noodle House continues to have nothing ‘special’ to offer. Nothing. And that’s what makes it special now.
Thai Noodle House
5 Coronation Road (map)
Tues – Sun, 11.30am – 9.30pm
Closed on Mondays
Tel. No.: 6467 0104