We all know the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Much the same can be said about restaurants; what might not be the finest, fanciest-looking establishment could still serve up surprisingly delicious fare. Nowhere is this truer than in Hong Kong, where hidden private kitchens in non-descript buildings, with unsightly décor and awful service offer feasts you are unlikely to forget. Sawali Club, a Thai ‘members only’ (not really) restaurant (of sorts) on the second floor of a commercial building in Wan Chai, is one such example.
The restaurant, run by sweet little Thai ladies (expect to battle with a strong language barrier), spans over three rooms that were perhaps once upon a time someone’s flat. Fold-up tables and stackable chairs cover all available space, so as to seat as many diners as possible in one night; you will get to know neighbouring diners more than you’d like to and will definitely partake in a shouting match in order to make yourself heard. As I said, there is nothing the least bit fancy about Sawali Club, yet its charm shines out from every one of its dirty, flaking, yellow walls.
Food, from the overwhelmingly large menu, comes in no particular order – you may get mains before your starters and rice long before your curries; if you want to start with dessert, I’m sure even this wouldn’t be frowned upon. According to various sources, Sawali Club generally uses a lot of MSG. Thai food is tasty enough as it is and I was pretty keen on actually getting some sleep that night, so a quick word with the only English-speaking waitress and MSG was off our menu.
Our first dish was a beef red curry, which was perfectly flavoured and carried a good level of spice. However, whilst I was lucky with my pieces of meat, others encountered nasty bits of gristle that somewhat lessened the enjoyment.
Plates of Thai-style morning glory and chicken with cashew nuts, two universal favourite dishes, were as good as we had hoped, without being laced with far too much oil.
The charcoal-grilled pork neck, despite not looking too appetising, was a winner. The thinly sliced, super tender pieces of meat had a subtle smoky flavour and were even better when dipped in the chilli soy sauce. The chicken satay also proved popular, both for the generous, tender chunks of chicken and the sweet, creamy peanut sauce, of which there was sadly not enough.
Out of the three salads we tried – squid, green mango and pomelo – the latter was by far the best, offering the perfect contrast of sweet versus spicy and juicy versus crunchy that amazed us all. It was without question one of the best pomelo salads I have ever tasted.
Despite receiving looks of disgust from the boys when we ordered, the fried tofu with basil and chilli impressed even them. Under the crisp outer layer of tofu was a beautiful, silky interior that absorbed all the delicious flavours of the dish.
The deep-fried soft-shell crab, for being the most expensive dish on the menu, seemed slightly stingy a portion, once you’d delved under the piles of crispy garlic, chilli and basil leaves. Get in there quick, as if you can actually claim one of the few pieces of crab, you definitely won’t regret it.
My favourite dish of the night was the fried yellow curry with prawns. The sauce, thickened with egg, was deliciously rich and creamy, loaded with giant, perfectly bouncy prawns. Despite having had more than my fair share, it was impossible to resist scooping up spoonful after spoonful of the delicious sauce straight from the bowl.
Amongst other less appealing options, dessert was either mango sticky rice, or mango sticky rice birthday cake… Unfortunately we had no birthdays around the table, but we didn’t let this get in the way of our fun; the lights were dimmed, music started blaring and our lovely waitresses began to serenade our ‘birthday girl’ with a hilarious rendition of Thai style Happy Birthday. Taste-wise, it was no more special than the next mango sticky rice, but it was definitely worth pretending it was someone’s birthday just to see this show!
For a ridiculous amount of food and several large bottles of beer (there is no corkage on BYO wine), we each paid a mere $200. Aside from our helpful English-speaking waitress and the ‘birthday’ entertainment, service can only be described as terrible. I can’t help but think, however, that this is all part of the experience at Sawali Club, an experience that I wouldn’t object to trying again.
2/F, Wing Cheong Building
18-20 Hennessy Road
Tel: +852 2811 2360