Here are four words you need to add to your vocabulary if you haven’t already: wagyu beef boat noodles. That’s the name of the signature dish at Wanchai newcomer Samsen, and it alone is a reason to pay a visit to this modest, no-reservations restaurant modeled after the rustic shophouses of Thailand. Featuring a rich and deeply satisfying broth made from a secret mix of ingredients (cinnamon, star anise and pig’s blood are obvious elements) and simmered for hours, the dish is completed with lightly cooked noodles, strips of wagyu beef, braised beef chunks and meatballs. It’s a triumph of flavour, and it’s bound to be on many lists when diners, professional or not, think about the best things they ate in 2016.
Located next to the historic Blue House, Samsen is a casual, no-frills corner spot that aims to serve authentic Thai street food, and it largely succeeds, even beyond the aforementioned noodles. The kitchen is run by Adam Cliff, the original chef at Chachawan, the Sheung Wan Thai restaurant that inspires a sort of loyal fanaticism in certain Hong Kong diners. His menu here is just as good if not better, though dishes such as fried rice with crabmeat and spring onion, or Thai omelet with crabmeat and spring onion, will look and taste familiar to Chachawan regulars. In accordance with the kitchen’s quest for authenticity, all of the noodles and many other ingredients are flown in from Bangkok, and the difference that extra effort makes is obvious in the finished product.
There are other noodle dishes to enjoy — stir-fried glass noodles with fermented tofu, for instance — as well as a selection of standout starters. The green papaya salad is a delight of varying textures and flavours, spicy and sweet and sour, just as Thai food is meant to taste. We also liked the eggs, soft boiled then fried, served with an addictive chilli jam, crispy shallots, crispy garlic and coriander.
Designed by Charlie & Rose, the restaurant features a vintage shophouse décor, with unfinished walls, tattered posters, exposed cupboards, and wooden tables and stools. We preferred sitting at the bar facing the open kitchen, where you can sit and watch the chef and his team assemble the dishes with gusto. The space is charming and intimate, with only 35 seats.
Drinks are limited to beer, fruit juices, house-made sodas and, of course, Thai iced tea and coffee. We highly recommend the watermelon juice, made from imported Thai fruit, which is sweet and refreshing. (If you wish, you can add a shot of vodka, gin or rum to any of the juices.) If you’re hoping for wine or cocktails, you’re out of luck, unfortunately.
Desserts are another highlight at Samsen, including the always-pleasing mango sticky rice. More surprising is ice cream made from young coconut and topped with coconut meat, toasted peanuts and sweet corn, the ice cream sundae you never knew you needed in your life.
Samsen won’t necessarily please all diners — particularly those who prefer table reservations, a wide variety of drinks or seats with back support — but you can’t fault the restaurant for staying true to its original vision of bringing an unpretentious Thai noodle shop with bold flavours to Hong Kong. Ultimately, you have to measure a restaurant against its own ambitions, and in this regard, Samsen is a major achievement. Thanks to its low-key vibe, reasonable prices (no dish exceeds HK$128) and those irresistible boat noodles, this is one spot we’ll be adding to our regular dining rotation.
Samsen, 68 Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai, Hong Kong, +852 2234 0001, no website