The Handlebar Club, founded by a group of wits, swells and raconteurs in 1947, asks only one thing of its members: ‘A hirsute appendage of the upper lip with graspable extremities’.
Born in The Windmill Theatre dressing room of comedian Jimmy Edwards, the club argues that being kissed by a smooth face (and members are, as far as I know, exclusively male) is akin to ‘meat without salt.’
Although beards are absolutely forbidden.
This ain’t talking food. This ain’t even thinking food. It’s an edible bloody cattle prod, the filth and the fury made flesh
And at long last we have two west London restaurants that manage to replicate the regional dishes that make Thai food so damned thrilling
Meetings take place on the first Friday of every month, and for the past ten years, exuberantly moustachioed members have gathered at The Heron, a pub whose undoubtedly ugly exterior hides a boozily handsome heart.
Because this is a proper London pub, a daytime drinking delight, where world-weary regulars right various wrongs over cold pints of fizzy lager, sitting in the shadow of carved coats of arms, ornate mirrors, Victorian cash registers, Edwardian ephemera, Art Deco nymphs, Belle Epoque stained-glass lampshades and Coronation china. On the wall, George Best jostles for space with the Queen Mother, while there’s a corner reserved for snaps of Handlebar Club notables.
Their extravagantly coiffed creations range from the Super Selleck and Rolling Roosevelt to Double Dali, Nuclear Nietzsche and the truly magnificent triple-pronged Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s a stirring sight, even for those of us who favour the razor. For this is a club that wages extravagantly hirsute war with the ‘bland, the boring and the generic’.
And that war is a fitting description for the Thai food served downstairs. Because here, in a bleak subterranean room with only marginally more warmth than the average morgue, you’ll find some of the most thrilling Siamese grub in London. I kid you not. I first went a few years back.
And was blown away. For this was food that honked, hummed and hissed, with dishes cooked with little regard for timorous tongues. Then things changed. For the worse. The menu moved away from the true flavours of Thailand and retreated into mediocrity, taking refuge in the usual bloodless dirge of Bounty-flavoured bland curries, soggy noodles and soups with all the depth of a puddle.
A few months back, though, I heard news that Jo, the chef and co-owner, had tweaked the menu. And things had returned to what they once were. I was back within minutes. And have been back most weeks since. Eat downstairs if you must, but upstairs is better, in the pub, munching fistfuls of Yum Tou Tod, deep-fried peanuts mixed with chopped scud chillies, shards of lime and chunks of raw onion. The ultimate Thai booze food.
Then Goong Chae Nam Pla, raw prawns in a chilli and lime dressing. Topped with fat slivers of raw garlic, this dish is brutal, pure palate GBH, perhaps the fiercest dish I’ve eaten in London. This ain’t talking food. This ain’t even thinking food. It’s an edible bloody cattle prod, the filth and the fury made flesh.
You get an acidic hit first, then the sly whiff of fish sauce, then the punch of garlic, and a slowly building wave of pure capsicum shock and awe. It creeps up on you like a predatory tiger. One moment, all’s well. The next, your eyes are streaming, your nose flowing and your tongue little more than a throbbing mass of useless gristle. Every drop of sweat sizzles, and you suddenly feel alive, drunk on endorphins, the whole world drenched in glorious Technicolor. Approach, though, with extreme caution. This baby bites back.
But it’s not all about the heat. Sure, the Som Tam Pu has a decent kick, but the balance – of the hot, sour and salty – is sublime. The soft chew of dried shrimp melds with the crisp crunch of papaya and peanut, and the brittle, mildly fetid crack of tiny salted crabs. Som Tum as it should be, a bracing cavalcade.
Chicken larb is more in the Isarn style, sharp with lime, and less herby and jungly than it its far northern cousin.
There’s a sigh of the wok’s breath, and a lusty scattering of roasted sticky rice powder, for that all-important nutty crunch. Things get rather more complex with Gang Som Goong Kai Cha Om, a soft, sour orange curry, with a herb omelette mixed in. There’s the ever-present whiff of fermented fish, but it’s subtle and gently muted, the polar opposite of those raw prawns, yet blessed with real depth.
Yuk Nam Khao Tod mixes crumbled rice balls with minced pork, chillies, peanuts and raw onion, another dish with soft, mildly spicy aplomb.
Plump home-made Isarn sausages have just the right amount of sour tang. The dishes here tend towards the north, and Bangkok, rather than the more southern-skewed dishes of the great 101 Thai Kitchen. But there’s obviously room for both. And at long last we have two west London restaurants that manage to replicate the regional dishes that make Thai food so damned thrilling. So eat it and weep. Tears of pain. Or pleasure. Or both.
About £20 per head