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First Bite: Hidden Thai Bistro

Shanghai, there’s still hope for good Thai food in this city…
Jun 21, 2021 | 17:00 Mon

Hidden Thai Bistro has been open for nearly a year and is already popular enough that it doesn’t take reservations and still requires a wait during dinner service on most nights. Why write about it now if it isn’t “news”? Because it’s good and seems to be -- for one reason or the other -- largely overlooked by this city’s foreign community.

It actually is pretty hidden, located at the back of a small xiaoqu across Shanghai Library.

The bougie Thai restaurants on tree-lined streets, the ones in mixed-use complexes and malls that run the gamut from high-end to fast-casual -- they've perfected that kind of Thai-ish or Thai-lite food that cheerfully tamps down on the sourness, piquancy, and full-bodied complexity of its original form.

Apparently that's how most Shanghairen, whether they’re from here or transplants to this city, like their Thai food. If a dish is meant to be spicy, they don't want to feel the burn. The ferment-y funk of shrimp paste or fish sauce? Turn that shit down!

Hidden Thai’s pad thai, 45rmb. It doesn't come with Thai chili flakes, but you can ask for a side of it to add on top (I also like to get an extra wedge of lime).

While Hidden Thai Bistro does make some concessions to suit local tastes, there’s a lot to be pleased about for people who have long since given up on eating a satisfying Thai meal in Shanghai. It helps that the restaurant is run by Thai people: The laoban niang (boss lady) is from Isan (Northeastern Thailand), the head chef is a woman from Bangkok, and most of the service staff are bilingual (in some cases trilingual) people from Thailand.

Hidden Thai’s stir-fried morning glory, 32rmb. Fish sauce and fresh chili don’t have to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in your dinner...

Some of the restaurant’s standout dishes are khao soi, a coconut curry noodle dish that’s often regarded as a regional treasure of Northern Thailand, and massaman curry -- a rich, deeply savory curry in which a fusion of fresh Thai aromatics and Indian spices build upon a nutty flavor base of coconut milk and ground peanuts.

The latter is often cited as a highlight of Royal Thai Cuisine, a distinct (and some argue superior) subset of the country’s culinary catalogue that traces back to the palace kitchens of the ancient Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Chiang Mai Noodle, AKA khao soi, 58rmb.

Hidden Thai’s khao soi, or rather "Chiang Mai Noodle" (58rmb) as it appears on the menu, comes with the toppings nicely laid out on small platters, accompanied by a little factsheet that introduces the dish and its components: raw shallots, lime, roasted chili paste, pickled cabbage, and crunchy fried noodles. The roasted chili paste carries quite a bit of heat, so it's best to add that one in increments until the overall dish suits your tastes.

Massaman beef curry, 88rmb. I have had uncouth knife fights with my dinner companions over the caramelized whole shallots in this curry. The stewed-until-silken bites of beef and potato are nice consolation prizes, though.

The massaman beef curry (88rmb) is something special, with the lemongrass, galangal, tamarind and coconut milk that we all recognize as pillars of Thai cooking beautifully balanced with spices that are less common in the cuisine -- cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and the like.

Most people will have a high level of familiarity with the other dishes on Hidden Thai’s menu. There's a sizable selection of fried snacks like Thai spring rolls, chicken wings, son-in-law eggs (deep-fried boiled eggs with tamarind sauce) and French fries with tom yum seasoning (from 25-45rmb).

Hidden Thai’s grilled pork neck, 49rmb.

That’s supplemented by starters such as grilled pork neck (49rmb) -- which is paired with an ambrosial sauce of tamarind and roasted chili paste -- and Chiang Mai sausage (49rmb). Usually, these sausages have the power to render me into a real-life drool emoji, but both times I tried Hidden Thai’s, their mealy texture and half-hearted seasoning could only conjure a Sad Affleck out of me.

Hidden Thai’s stir-fried seafood curry, 72rmb.

Back to the good: Generally, the restaurant’s stir-fries are really solid. More than solid! They do a version of the stir-fried seafood curry (72rmb) that's popular at seafood restaurants in Thailand. Eggs are stirred into the curry sauce at the end of the cooking process, which adds depth of flavor and the dish’s signature custardy texture. Hidden Thai's stir-fried beef with basil and chili (78rmb) and stir-fried morning glory (32rmb) are nicely done, too.

The kitchen also does justice to the usual suspects like green curry with chicken (58rmb), pad thai (45rmb), and papaya salad (35rmb). You can actually taste the fresh herbs and zippy kick of green chilis in their version of green curry because it's not drowning in coconut milk.

Hidden Thai’s green curry with chicken, 58rmb.

Of course, at the end of the day, taste is subjective, so there’s not much sense in dropping the a-word (authentic) as a shortcut to say that the restaurant deserves a visit. But if it’s froufrou-free Thai food that brings back more of the amped up flavors of the cuisine that you’re looking for, then Hidden Thai is that other cliched a-word. Awesome :)

Hidden Thai’s mango sticky rice with coconut ice cream, 42rmb.

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Hidden Thai Bistro, full listing and details here; Browse all Thai restaurants here.

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