Tucked inside a supermarket in Manchester's Chinatown, with bare brick walls and brightly coloured plastic seats, Siam Smiles is a modest affair. On each table, boxes of tissues sit next to jars of chili oil for inevitable running noses, and you can bring beer from the Chinese supermarket across the road.
Despite such modest appearances, this tiny Thai cafe has become one of the city's most talked-about places to eat.
"Proper Thai street food is just like this," owner May tells me. "Just simple chairs, simple tables—everything's just simple and people come and sit for a quick lunch."
Siam Smiles is known as much for this relaxed dining approach as it is for its authentic Thai menu: fish ball-laden noodle soups, papaya salad, and blow-your-head-off curries. In an infamously glowing write-up in the national press, one reviewer zealously described the cafe as "the most exciting thing to happen to me in Manchester since the days of the Hacienda."
Only this place isn't a hazy memory forty-somethings perpetuate beyond levels of reality. Siam Smiles withstands the hype it has received since May bought the supermarket in 2014. Better still, it's not one of those places people go to be seen—waiting in a 40-minute line out of the front door.
When I visit, it's Saturday, just before lunchtime, and quiet apart from the occasional sound of the till springing open. There's no ambient background music but people are sitting to eat together after buying ingredients from the supermarket section. One woman dexterously multi-tasks, talking on the phone with her face bowed down into a bowl of noodle soup. Nearby, there's a Buddhist shrine with incense burning, and a framed photograph of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
At first, May had planned to make Siam Smiles a coffee shop—somewhere for the Thai community to stop while shopping in Chinatown. She'd moved to Manchester from London and wanted something to do while her three children were at school. Then a chef from a local Thai restaurant offered to make it a bigger project.
"He said nobody was doing really good straight [authentic] Thai food," she explains. "I said, 'I don't know how to cook!' and he offered to teach me. We started off with five small tables and it got really popular. But after a month, the chef left."
It's a surprise to hear that May—Siam Smile's sole chef as well as the owner—hadn't cooked before opening the place. She didn't even know how to slice meat. Age nine, she left Thailand to go to boarding school in Sydney and was used to being cooked for back at home, where her mother owned a restaurant serving dishes from the Isan region, just south of the Laos border.
I'm even more surprised when May tells me that she taught herself to cook using YouTube tutorials after her chef left. I instantly love this woman. She took the fake-it-'til-you-make-it attitude I harness when learning eyeliner flicks from vloggers, and used it to sustain her business. That's especially refreshing in Manchester, where so many restaurants are vocally keen for the city's first Michelin star.
"My cooking has come from zero. If I've done it, other people must be able to do it too," says May.
What's more, in teaching herself to cook from scratch, May has created a formula for the staff to follow when she collects her kids from school in the afternoons.
"I make the sauces so when somebody orders, my staff can cook the meat and noodles, and add my sauce and vegetables," she explains. "Everybody in the shop can do that if I'm not in."
Most of the ingredients used in the kitchen come from Pathum Thani, a province just north of Bangkok. Apart from tomatoes, which May buys over here. I spot the same ingredients on the shelves in the supermarket—galang root, baby aubergine, and kaffir leaves as well as dozens of types of chili sauce.
Following May into the kitchen, I see it's just as pared-back as the cafe. There are pots of broths in industrial-sized pans bubbling over gas canisters. Workstations are clean, simple, and look like the set-up you might find at a roadside cafe in Bangkok.
"The electricity is limited. When I overuse it, it just cuts off! So I have to use gas," May says, preparing my bowl of kuai tiew yen ta fo, a pink noodle soup glistening with squid, fish balls, fish tofu, and morning glory.
"I mean, at the moment, it's cold in here," May adds, pointing to her rollneck layered under a jumper with a badger on the front. "But in the summer, it's really nice and hot."
There is definitely a nip in the air, though it's far less noticeable once you're digesting a burning hot curry.
"When Thai chefs get trained over here, they have to cater to English tastes," she says of Siam Smiles' chili-packed curries. "People love my cooking because I make authentic flavours based on what my mum has recommended. Other people cry having my curry!"
In another corner of the kitchen, May's colleague chops chili at a prepping station bedecked with a pink tablecloth covered in lookalike Disney princesses.
"She's really good at papaya salad," May says. "She had a stall in Pattaya. You couldn't eat it, it's strong. Sometimes we take it back for English people. If they say 'I'll have it spicy,' we'll say, "Are you sure?'"
I'm just comforted to know that these women, in their chunky, animal-covered knitwear, are cooking up much-loved (and sometimes lethal) Thai fare in a kitchen with a pink princess tablecloth.
All photos by Felix Mooneeram.
For more innovative chefs and Chinatown secrets, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.