Samsen: the Best Boat Noodles in Town
Maybe it's the long queue; it's humbling to know that the strangers waiting around you are equally as ravenous and impatient. It is also a great sign, especially in Hong Kong, that many are willing to commit to the wait. From the start, there is no pretence at Samsen: it's all about the food and the authenticity of the experience, and of course, the excitement of it all as you wait your turn.
There is always a queue outside good restaurants in Hong Kong. People in the city are impatient, picky eaters, but to varying degrees, committed foodies as well. When there is a queue, it is a sign that the restaurant is a noteworthy one. And if there is a queue in front of the restaurant before it opens for the day, which is the case for Samsen Wanchai, you'll know that it is a really, really good restaurant.
At first glance, the decor is one that transports you to Thailand. The cramped tables, wooden stools, chopsticks filled tins, water filled kettles, and even the paint peeling from the colourwashed walls whisk you out of Hong Kong and into the hot land of elephants, and sriracha. Though, you can tell that these little interior details, possibly even the weathered walls, have been painstakingly designed. The decor and casual atmosphere offer a quick respite from the bustle of Hong Kong.
Located just off the busy Queen's Road East, and right next to the historic Blue House on Stone Nullah Lane, tables in Samsen Wanchai are always full, within the minute it opens. It is a matter of how long the line is, and how committed diners are. And boy is the wait worth it. Let's talk about the food.
The short but top notch menu
The menu is not extensive but it has everything you'd want. From the classic stir-fried morning glory, pad thai, pad see ew, khao pad, to the Singha beer, lime soda, and mango sticky rice. If you want the classics, Samsen delivers and it delivers them well. However, people come for the a special dish that is not only hard to find in the city, but also done at a different level in Samsen. I'm talking about the beef boat noodles or 'Samsen Wagyu noodle soup' as listed in the menu. Though, do keep in mind that this dish is not available in Samsen's Sheung Wan branch which focuses on other offerings such as skewers and curries. Close parenthesis, and back to the noodles.
First sip of that thick broth and you will be sent straight to foodie heaven. It is so rich, you will be left wildly guessing at the number of hours and ingredients that went into creating it. Hints of fresh Thai basil reinforce the intensity of the flavourful broth. In fact, it seems wrong to call it a broth when the thickness of it rivals that of a soup. Just when you think your brain cannot handle the liquified epitome of umami, you take a look at your bowl and it is covered in different little gems. There are pork scratchings that turn into sponges as they become saturated from the broth, crunchy bites of morning glory stem, slices of fried garlic that somehow manage to add more flavour to the broth, small springy beef meatballs, thin slices of rare beef that just cooks from the heat of the broth, and chunky bites of soft brisket. As you try all these little elements within the bowl with an added slurp of broth here and there, you find tangled in this beautiful mess thin silky strands of rice noodles that are almost translucent.
The best way to enjoy this bowl? Grab your spoon, fill it with a few strands of noodles, add some broth in and top it with one of the treasures you manage to pick up from the bowl. Take it all in with one big bite, and you say 'khob khun ka Samsen'. Repeat this action until you finish absolutely everything from that glorious bowl and sit slightly stunned for a good minute. Maybe at this point you can consider reaching for the glass of Singha or lime soda that has remained in the periphery thus far to calm the residual heat and lingering spices. The boat noodles is a bowl that brings you alive. Even your lips will be left tingly for a good while.
At Samsen, bowls of excitement are served. Each spoonful sends you straight to foodie heaven.
When you come out of your stupor, you can either choose to remain in this sublime feeling of palette stimulation, and of course leave the table for the next eager customer, or get some extra help to calm the nerves. This is where the ice creams come in.
There are two flavour options of coconut or Thai milk tea. Both are served in halved coconuts and topped with coconut shavings, corn slices, and toasted salty peanuts. If you have difficulty choosing, which I happily confess that I do, you can also ask to have a mix of both - the best option I would say.
The Thai milk tea ice cream is earthy in flavour whilst the young coconut ice cream is light and refreshing. Mixing spoons of ice cream with bites of sweet corn, mellow coconut, or crunchy peanut create pairings of texture and flavour that keep the dessert exciting till the very last bite. It's another treasure-filled bowl.
Annual Bib Gourmand Michelin since it's opening in 2016
It's no surprise Samsen receives a Bib Gourmand every year; the everpresent queue, quality food, and reasonable prices can attest to that. It is undoubtedly one of the best Thai restaurants in Hong Kong, which is a feat considering the many competitors of the same cuisine within the city. Whilst there are too many flavours to clearly remember Samsen by, you will always remember their bowls to be robust and tantalising to all your senses. And with that, you will find yourself at the end of their queue at some point once more.