Friday, 8 January 2016

Zaap Thai, Leeds

However hard you try to escape it, this time of year feels pretty sad. It’s cold and grim outside and everyone’s given up the booze and is on some weird fad diet which means the fridge at work is currently full of neon green drinks, yoghurt and mackerel fillets in contrast to the pre-Christmas platters of sausage rolls and mince pies.

Short of a fortnight on the beach in Mexico, I find the best way to counteract the gloom is with some spice. A panacea for the palate, deadened this year not only by the usual festive onslaught of chocolate and cream, but also a nasty cold, kindly bestowed upon me by my loving niece the Gingerbread.

Thankfully salvation was at hand in the form of Zaap Thai, a ‘street food’ restaurant in the Grand Arcade, Leeds, that's the brasher younger brother to the perennially popular Sukothai mini-chain.

Inside they've gone full-throttle with the garish Bangkok street market theme, with walls adorned with everything from kick boxing shorts to boxes of soap powder to the crowning glory of a pair of remodelled tuk tuks that you can sit in to eat your lunch. The ersatz effect shouldn't work, but it does, in an endearingly ramshackle way.

As our lunch stop was breaking up a cross-town pub crawl - and I had already promised my Aunt, whom we were staying with, that we would return in a respectable state for dinner - we eschewed booze in favour of a soft drink menu that included thai green bubble tea, chrysanthemum tea and roselle juice (no, me neither).

The Ewing's thai iced coffee hit the spot, being sweet and strong and served long in a dimpled pint pot with plenty of ice. My bonkers sounding and equally bonkers looking, butterfly pea juice with soda and lemon looked like a fancy cocktail and tasted like fancy Ribena.

We started with the Ewing's favourite, the mighty prawn cracker. Although these were the more resilient, darker kind (a better shrimpy flavour but none of that Skip-like ‘fizzle’ on the tongue) as opposed to the paler Chinese variety. No matter, a basket of warm deep fried things served with chilli jam is never going to last long in our company.

First up of our sharing plates was the Nam Tok Kor Moo, or grilled pork neck served with Isaan salad. As much as I love green stuff, a salad normally suggests the bland and the boring, suitable for dieters or the infirm. In contrast the best Thai salads are a vicious assault on the senses; an invigorating mix of fresh and fearsome.

This was no exception; a crunchy bed of raw red onion, iceberg lettuce and fresh herbs topped with strips of grilled pork neck, tossed in a pungent ground rice and fish sauce-based dressing made the perfect combination of salty, stinky, sour and spicy. And it was hot. In fact thanks to the ramped-up chilli quotient - or perhaps in homage to the dishes translated name, 'grilled pork waterfall' - tears began to gently roll from my eyes as I ate it.

No matter as we had ordered another salad, the classic Som Tum Thai which, despite having a menacing red squiggle signifying 'hot' next to it on the menu, I felt confident would have a cooling and calming effect on my throbbing tongue....

Needless to say this was, if anything, even hotter; a sinus-clearing mix of fresh green papaya, ground shrimp, cherry tomatoes and peanuts liberally strewn with both dried birds eye chilli and strips of fresh red chilli with well balanced flavours that are so often missing in our wan approximation of foreign fare.

The best bit of the experience, or certainly the most amusing, came thanks to our requested addition of pou, or raw crab; strange crunchy lumps that I quickly put to one side but the Ewing persevered trying to eat. Unsure whether to bite through it whole, like a soft shell crab, or painstakingly strip the jelly-like flesh from the carapace, she called the waitress over, seemingly oblivious to the chilli-induced tears causing a cascade of mascara down her cheeks.

While trying not to show alarm at the two sweating, sobbing spectacles in front of her, the waitress diplomatically asked if this was the first time we had tried it, while pointing out the crab was there for flavour and should be 'sucked and then discarded' (and you must try them, they are most delicious - TE) in a friendly yet amused air. I like to think I suffer these indignities so you don't have to.

Our final dish, a mussel pancake, was mercifully chilli free, but made up for it by arriving at the table in a skillet slightly hotter than the surface of the sun. Initially I was a little dubious of the thought of lumps of hot mollusc suspended in an eggy batter, but this was another fab plate; huge amounts of super fresh seafood in a crisp and well-seasoned fritter, studded with spring onion and scattered with fresh herbs.

Zaap wasn’t just a pleasant surprise, the food we ate blew me away; literally and figuratively. Yes, the menu’s peppered with plenty of anodyne crowd-pleasers - although there’s nothing wrong with that (definitely not - TE) - and the decor isn’t going to do it for everyone (it did it for me- TE), but I loved the fact we could sit amongst the neon bustle, sipping luminous drinks and giving our jaded taste buds a proper working over, for less than fifteen pounds a head.

While that might not quite be Bangkok prices, and there are (mercifully) no Mekong whisky buckets to wash it all down, being in South Yorkshire and not South Easts Asia, we could stroll down to the newly opened Headrow House after lunch to calm our tongues with a beverage. And not just any beverage, but an unpasteurised Czech lager straight from the tank, freshly opened the day before our visit. Cold beer and spicy food; I had tears in my eyes for all the right reasons.

Zaap Thai Street Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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