Dining at Som Tam Gai brings memories of great meals flooding back.
Our first tastes of authentic Asian curries, hand-ground from fresh ingredients using fresh coconut milk came to us long before we tasted the fabulous wonders of real street food in situ, or fusion version prepared by international chefs such as Will Meryrick in Bali. Humble memories can be the best kind of memories: dining in a Cairns car park at rickety tables, our food emerging from a tiny restaurant beyond, and enjoying street food delights at sunset at Darwin’s Mindil Beach markets.
The eponymous Som Tam Gai (named after Green Papaya Salad with chicken) is also humble. It’s also a most unexpected gift borne of hardship.
Founded by Dasche Goodwin, a Gold Coast chef working in a fine dining Thai restaurant in Finland, Dasche returned home during Covid to find that jobs were nonexistent. So he decided to open his own restaurant.
“Even though it was during lockdown, Covid probably worked in my favour,” Dasche tells us, the shortage of hospitality positions enabling him to engage business partners/chefs Garry Velez and Carlos De Valence.
To Som Tam Gai, Dasche envisaged bringing the philosophy and skills he had gained during his time with Tomi Björck (Finland’s most celebrated chef) at Farang, Helsinki. From their travels through Asia, Garry and Carlos were both really interested in the concept of a casual restaurant focussing on Southeast Asian street food.
Farang’s website describes their ‘raison d’être’, a philosophy which also applies to Som Tam Gai half a world away: “… we create dishes with authentic Asian flavours by starting with the freshest raw ingredients we can find and then preparing them by hand, no shortcuts, using modern cooking techniques… Our menu has intense natural flavors, a balanced serenade of spicy, salty, sour and sweet.”
Opening Som Tam Gai on one side of the yurt-like building in front of Poke Poke, Mermaid Beach, the trio of chefs spend long hours each day preparing food from scratch in the kitchen. At meal times, Dasche takes the role of Front of House, recognising that warm personal service is as crucial to a harmonious dining experience as the food brought to the table.
It’s a very casual restaurant, diners spread around the small dining space and out into an alfresco area that’s perfect at lunchtime and during warmer months.
But the focus really is the food. After years of settling for less (with generic pastes, tasteless watered-down sauces and shortcut mother stock being seen as ‘curry’), Som Tam Gai’s dishes bring the bold, authentic flavours of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, to the table.
It’s food made to be shared, a great idea anyway as you will not want to miss out on anything. Like true street food, the dishes are inexpensive ($30 or less, with many plates in the teens). Skewers, snacks, curries and wok-flashed, we begin by choosing a few dishes and go from there. Alternatively, a short or long banquet will bring you a feast of the chefs’ choice ($49 – $59pp).
Our skewers of Crying Tiger beef pack a punch, especially with the addition of the side of chilli paste. Wrapping the beef in baby cos leaves adds opposing textures, so favoured in street food dishes. Turmeric tiger prawns laced with turmeric, grilled pineapple and herbs boast freshness and flavour. We find it impossible not to lick our fingers as we eat, not wanting to waste a drop of sauce. Asian greens never tasted as good as this, topped with a hat of crispy enoki for balance and crunch.
But it’s the Thai red duck curry with lychees that’s an epiphany. After years of settling for less, this is the depth of flavour we long for, the texture of the curry speaking of seeds and spices ground to paste by hand, and enough punch to bring the full explosion of Thai street flavour to our palates. Superb!
So, what drinks would we pair with this food? Beer of course, and though good wine is available, a Lychee Martini would go well with curry, or maybe even a Chilli Margarita.
We may not be sweating it out in hot Thai nights right now, but Som Tam Gai is the closest we’ve come to the real flavours of Asian street food in a long time, all without going far or busting out too many bucks. What a treasure! We can’t wait to go back and dine there again.
Som Tam Gai, 2375 Gold Coast Highway, Mermaid Beach Ph: 0434 034 627
Open: Wed – Sun 12noon – 3pm, 5pm – late