Thai food is my favourite. We have happy memories of Thai food as we got married there. Every day we ate amazing things like Tom Yum, Phad Thai, Massaman curry and lots of amazing fresh noodle salads. It’s the freshest, tastiest, cleanest, healthiest food you can eat.
But it’s pretty much impossible to recreate those memories in Belfast. There are plenty of restaurants branded as Thai, but they’re really no more than a typical purveyor of gloopy “Norn Irish Chinese”, with the token Thai green curry on the menu. You wake up 4 hours after eating it with a pounding heart, dried out mouth and feelings of an anxiety attack. Just me?
So it was with much excitement, and trepidation that we heard that ACE (formerly Gourmet Burger) on Belfast’s Belmont Road was to become a SE Asian restaurant – Happy Angel.
By chance one afternoon I was chatting to executive chef Tony O’Neill (NAME DROP KLAXON) who told me he wanted to create a restaurant with proper SE Asian food…. a bit of Thailand, Vietnam, Korea… no gloop, no MSG. However he did worry me when he said some of the flavours of SE Asia were too strong for a Belfast audience and that some dishes would be mellowed down. This included my favourite of Tom Yum. Normally a dish absolutely packed with chilli, lemongrass, ginger, coriander.
For us, we like to share Asian food. Order a few starters, mains and sides and just get stuck in. For most Belfast people it seems this is a step to far, and they like to order their own dish and stick to it. Peering over the edge of their plate at their dining partner’s choice, wondering if they made the correct decision.
The Nam Phrik is my partner’s new favourite dish. It’s hard to describe it without it sounding a little weird, but do try it. It’s kind of a dipping, nutty pork dish. Almost like a satay but not as sweet or sickly.
The pork belly in a caramelised chilli sauce is incredible. It’s juicy, crispy on the outside, sweet, salty and packed with sticky flavour.
This brings me back to my sharing mantra… why would you want a whole dish of this to yourself?
Its amazing to dip in to a cube of pork belly in this amazing sticky sauce, then freshen things up with another option like the crab salad with mint and chilli.
It took me a couple of visits before I’d try the toned down Tom Yum. I was worried. This was a big test of Thai flavours for me.
So I backed off. Worrying that if this didn’t have enough chilli in it, I was going to be pissed off.
Out it came… it LOOKED right. It was a bright broth with lots of colour and plenty of prawns in there.
The first mouthful was amazing. It TASTED right too! It was hot. Very hot. It was sour, it was fresh, it had everything that should be there. It was beautiful…. and for £4.50 a total bargain. This was the first time outside of Thailand that I had tasted this dish, and all the memories of the little beach shack in Koh Samui flooded back. If you ate food like this every day, I doubt you’d ever get a cold. It definitely blew the cobwebs away.
Our toddler loves Happy Angel too. It still has the warmth and casual friendliness of ACE, and Gourmet Burger before that. But the food is definitely more adult.
That brings me to my one criticism. We were pleased to hear there was still a kids menu. It’s a mix of noodles, chargrilled chicken, vegetables etc. It’s £6 for a dish, which we thought was fair enough for some proper kids food.
It was however very disappointing. Out came a tiny amount of chicken, probably two forkfuls, and a small scattering of fries. When you compare it to the adult dishes like Tom Yum which is just £4.50… or even the lovely side dishes of noodles which are just £2.50… it felt like a bit of a rip off. Our toddler ignored her plate, and ate from ours anyway. She was much more interested in noodles and dishes full of colour. So in future we’ll just order and let her have some of ours.
We’ve been four times now in as many weeks, and each time we want to go back and try the other options. We’ve heard the chilli crispy beef is the highlight. So that’s on our to-do list. But the Tom Yum is now my established first choice.
It’s clearly not for everyone. It’s notable in these early stages, how many people walk in, sit down, look at the menu with a mix of horror and fear…. then stand up and walk out. Apologising awkwardly on their way out the door. Maybe they just wanted a burger, maybe they thought it was still ACE (it does look very similar inside)… but they’re missing out on something that is entirely new for Belfast.
Go try it… and share!
I’ll leave you with my attempt at the Happy Angel menu challenge. On the back of the menu there’s a detailed instruction on how to make your own Happy Angel… it’s a great way to waste 4 hours.