Unithai, Brighton, England
By Jessica – April 18th, 2009
I like a gourmet meal in elegant surroundings as much as the next foodie, but many of my favorite food experiences have taken place in decidedly downscale environments—sausages scoffed under an awning on a drizzly German day, grilled things on sticks consumed in the back alleys of Tokyo, and spicy midnight feasts on dark Bangkok streetcorners.
Closer to home, one of my favorite places to eat in Brighton is E-Kagen, an unassuming Japanese café up a slightly shabby flight of stairs which serves the most delicate gyoza and soothing bowls of soba noodles in town. Running a close second for my affections is Unithai, an unassuming Thai café at the back of a crowded Asian food shop which serves the most lip-tingling curries and satisfying bowls of Thai noodle soup in Brighton.
The Unithai shop/café isn’t far from where we live, and I must have passed it a thousand times before ever stepping foot inside. It’s not obvious from the outside that there’s a café at the back, so I was surprised and delighted to walk in one day and see a small collection of tables and a menu featuring treats like green curry with sweet basil or rice noodles in soup—dishes I fell in love with on our trip to Thailand in 2008.
Since our first visit to Unithai last year, Jeremy and I have been going there regularly for lunch every Saturday. One of us will invariably order a soupy noodle dish: either item “6b” on the menu, also known as kuay-tiew rua (noodles and pork in a broth with a deeply aromatic 5-spice flavor), “6c” (a tangy, creamy seafood soup with tender fish dumplings), or the latest addition to the menu, suki, a celery-infused noodle soup with green beans, pork and seafood, topped with a spicy chili sauce. All of the soups are accompanied by the usual Thai condiments—chili flakes, sugar, fish sauce, and chilies in vinegar—so you can adjust the seasoning to taste (I usually use a little bit of each thing, but I once saw a fellow diner dump what looked like several tablespoons of hot chili flakes into her soup—most impressive).
The non-soupy noodle dishes are a hit as well. They have the ubiquitous pad thai, of course, but for a spicier and more interesting meal, I highly recommend the pad kee mao or “drinker’s style” noodles (so called either because it’s good when you’ve been drinking or because it’s so spicy that it makes you want to drink), or the aptly named mee hot noodles, which are mixed with onions, long beans, and pieces of cabbage. A side dish of stir-fried pak choy or Chinese leaves goes nicely with these.
If rice is more your thing, then try a traditional Thai red or green curry, both of which are rich, creamy, and just hot enough to give your tongue a little thrill. The normal curries come with chicken, prawns, or tofu, but you can also get a decadent red curry with roasted duck. Alternatively, there’s the tongue-twisting, tongue-searing kao rad pad kra-pao, which is minced chicken or pork with fresh chilies and basil, served on rice and ideally topped with a fried egg; this is probably the spiciest thing on the menu, but the egg really tames the heat of the chilies.
Regarding those chilies, a word of caution: when the menu says spicy, it means spicy. However, most of the dishes on the menu are completely mild, and you can ask for things to be made less spicy if you’re not one for the chili sweats. I just happen to like that post-chili euphoria you get after eating something deliciously spicy (pro tip: avoid drinking hot tea with your spicy meal—sweet coconut juice cools the fire beautifully).
One of the best things about Unithai is that once you’ve finished your fabulous Thai meal in the café, you can pick up all the ingredients in the shop to try your hand at cooking authentic Thai food at home. Unithai is the only shop I know of in Brighton that consistently has the green papaya and long beans you need for making som tam, the small Thai eggplants/aubergines and even smaller cherry eggplants used in curries, and the full range of holy basil, Thai basil, coriander/cilantro, chilies, lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal—not to mention good miso, fresh pak choy and Chinese broccoli, frozen edamame and gyoza wrappers, rice, noodles, spices, dried fishy snacks, and cooking implements (I picked up my giant Thai mortar and pestle there).
To top it all off, like at E-Kagen, the owners of Unithai are friendly and welcoming, making you feel like a regular even if you’ve never eaten there before in your life. And now that we really are regulars, one of the highlights of my week is when we walk into Unithai on a busy Saturday and are greeted with the delectable scent of coconut curry and a warm “Sawadee kha!”
Unithai Oriental Market, 10 Church Road, Hove BN3 2FL, England, +44 (0) 1273 733 246