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Samsen Sheung Wan: The Verifiable Best Thai Diner in Town
by: Rubin Verebes
June 17, 2022
Samsen in Sheung Wan commands a healthy dominion above Hong Kong’s repertoire of Thai diners, deserving of its Michelin Bib Gourmand award in 2022. The cosy restaurant boasts a menu of punchy and sweet recipes and an electric ambience with a magnetic nature.
The 75-seat hawker-stall-esque diner is the second venue of the two-restaurant-strong Thai noodle house restaurant group, Hawker Group, opening in late 2020 after a luminous four years with its sister Wan Chai venue.
Harnessing an almost identical menu to its Wan Chai, with special dishes differing with locations, Samsen is spearheaded by Australian chef and group CEO, Adam Cliff, of former Chachawan, drawing his experience at Bangkok’s Nahm in designing a coconut-heavy, salty, sweet menu.
Often the only restaurant operating at dinner in Sheung Wan’s quaint office area, Samsen shines in after-hours following a workday office trip. Lines routinely snake around the entrance of the diner as the warmth and chatter bursts out onto Jervois Street.
Samsen truly approaches a high degree of authenticity with its decor. Following the theme of hawker boat noodle eating, the diner trades a stainless-steel open kitchen with exposed red bricks, printed posters advertising neighbourhood services in Thai, scribbled graffiti, shelves of Thai canned goods, and wooden picnic tables and stalls.
Floating the bias we have for the Sheung Wan mecca (a verifiable The Beat Asia-approved joint), Samsen beckons you to join the community huddled in a bustily hall to praise and crave for a menu juiced with coconut, Tiparos fish sauce, red chilli, spritzed garlic, salt, and turmeric.
Food and Drink
Chef Adam’s conversance with the roots of Thai cooking at one Michelin Star Nahm in central Bangkok, Sheung Wan’s Chachawan, and a litany of Sydney Thai diners makes him a perfect suitor for importing the flavours of Thai cuisine with Samsen.
“Our cooking methods employ traditional “no-shortcut” approach and aim to cook all of our food true to origin, meaning we do not alter the seasoning for the local market,” Adam told The Beat Asia.
On a quiet weekday night in May, we armed ourselves with wooden chopsticks and tucked napkins beneath our chins in a heavy exploration of Samsen’s A4 menu. Our foray into Samsen’s starter selection began with the chargrilled Wagyu beef skewers (HK$158), paired with a spicy tomato and Thai herb relish.
Great for sharing in a pier, the wagyu promises a classic honeyed char on its skin, infused garlic flavouring, and a slight blood and muscle flavour familiar with the raw cut of beef. Bite and release the umami, salty, and punchy onion juices, and dip with the relish to introduce tingling red chilli spice and fruity vinegar to flavour the beef insides.
Up next, we were served the wok-fried Thai watercress (HK$88), a simple green veggie dish on first impression, but with cut chilli, roasted garlic, yellow beans, and a sprinkle of MSG, the watercress packs a punch.
The imported greens from north Thailand hold their water and that is important here. Soaking up the juices of sauteed shallots and garlic, each bite releases an aromatic vegetal smell that follows through to the nose and carries on the tongue with a strong garlic aftertaste, signalling to the brain for yet another mouthful of this addictive dish.
Samsen does curries exceptionally well, and this shines through with their aromatic curry of chicken & potatoes (HK$178), a turmeric and coconut-base curry simmered for hours with fried sweet shallots, garlic, and optionally served alongside fresh made Roti (HK$48) and a rose-honey sweet cucumber relish.
Addictive: this dish is. The curry effortlessly plays with the silky texture and sweet flavour of coconut milk, softening the chicken that breaks with a slight push of a fork, and contrasts with earthy turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon to flavour the potato. The roti acts as a great mop for the juices and a makeshift sandwich.
A fan favourite among Samsen regulars, the fried rice of crabmeat & spring onions (HK158) with crispy garlic, scallion, egg, and chilli is a simple dish, seasoned with only MSG and fish sauce, that plays with texture and shape.
The crabmeat fried rice does not rock the boat but is a welcome party member with a textured dish that blends crunchy (onion) with soft (scrambled eggs). Each bite is different. Add some spice as this carb-heavy plate requires some infusion of tingle.
After six savoury dishes, which left us with belts unbuckled and smiles planted on our faces, we mustered a tiny space to occupy desert in our stomachs. The Thai banana roti (HK$98) and pandan ice cream (HK$78) assisted our early fall into a food coma returning home.
Using the same flowery and crispy roti as our chicken combo, the infusion of sliced bananas and condensed milk into a grilled sandwich shot a rush of serotonin in me. My brain said, “YES, HAVE MORE”; my dentist will say, “careful Rubin.” Conversely, the pandan flavouring of the ice cream possesses a velvety aloe vera texture that sets the stomach after a salt-heavy meal.
The Samsen kitchen and front-of-house staff are family, customers are house guests, and the venue is home for sharing dishes and love for rich Thai plates. Tables are huddled close together emulating that feeling of the entire village storming into a mess hall to eat on spectacular dishes, made with love and the authenticity of recipes hailing from the motherland.
Samsen does not take itself seriously, even with a prestigious Bib Gourmand award. We witnessed two birthday cakes being delivered to lucky guests. Every staff joined a conga line, “Happy Birthday to Ya” by Stevie Wonder blared from the speaker, and every customer stopped to clap. It was electric. I felt genuinely happy eating among cheery staff and diners.
Chef Adam flexes his Thai culinary savoir faire in merging dishes with allium vegetables, coconut milk, and hot juiced red chilli peppers to mould Samsen as the city’s most authentic Thai and a space that you never try just once but go back 10 more times.
“Samsen is really a place for family and friends to gather and spend quality time together over a meal,” Adam said.
Samsen will now occupy high as the best Thai restaurant in town, on my list of recommended Sheung Wan venues, and a space to release stress and fill with good vibes. For two people and an exploration of Samsen’s menu, we recommend trying the chargrilled Wagyu beef skewers (HK$158), pounded green papaya salad with toasted peanuts (HK$112), aromatic curry of chicken and potatoes (HK$178) and freshly made Roti (HK$48), and Thai mango sticky rice (HK$88).
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