By: Wided Khadraoui
It began with a longing and has now gotten to a point where jokes for a petition for a frequent diner cards are no longer humorous. Tom yum, a spicy clear soup typical in Thailand, isn’t a usual craving in blisteringly hot Riyadh- unless you’ve tasted the soup before.
A need for a fix of the distinct hot and sour flavors hit one afternoon and a quick Google search procured The Villa, with reviews stating it as the only place for tom yum in Riyadh.
‘Only’ is never a good word to read in a write up. Singularity usually ensures that restaurants become complacent and stop trying. Despite initial reservations, we decided to take a chance on the tom yum at The Villa.
We drove by it several times before realizing the non-descript heavily grated ‘grocery store’ was the restaurant itself. Upon entering the eatery, there is a 50 gallon fish tank housing a couple of weary goldfish who are constantly being tapped by the grubby hands of children who freely wander as their parents finish their meal.
We decided to risk it despite first appearances, and sat down and tried the tom yum, which culminated into the present established love affair.
The Villa delivers on all my culinary expectations in a refreshingly unpretentious fashion. It doesn’t attempt to be something that it isn’t. Plastic covers the various tables strewed throughout the crowded main family section, and the glass condiment caddies are unceremoniously shared between tables that demand the extra heat. Despite the shabby décor and lack of cloth napkins, the food is honestly admirable.
Most recently, my party of three arrived for dinner on a Friday evening, managing to sneak in at around 7 pm to ensure we are able to order and receive our food before prayer. Outside excursions in Saudi Arabia seem to always rotate around evading cumbersome prayer stoppages, and our dinner at The Villa was no exception.
I, notoriously, always order more than I can physically eat, instead of just choosing one main; I end up with at least two. On our table for that evening we had a plethora of dishes, when I say plethora, you read ‘way too much food’.
We ordered grilled shrimp, larp, a whole duck slivered and served with Chinese kale, phanaeng (Thai curry), pad thai (flat rice noodles topped with chicken, bean sprouts, and bean curd in a Thai gravy sauce), crispy noodles, and of course an order of tom yum.
The grilled shrimp is always a sure bet. The shrimp is accompanied with a sauce that features fish sauce, chilies, and vinegar and is a perfect match for the grilled shrimp. The phanaeng curry is always consistently creamy, allowing the coconut to meld all the layers of flavors together without being overwhelming. The larb with the toasted rice sprinkled on top of the beef tossed in lime, scallions, and cilantro is the authentic touch that is critical to making the dish.
The Meegrohp Rard Nah Song Kroeng ( Crispy Noodle dish) exemplifies Thai cuisine’s adherence to the cooking adage of texture being as important as flavor. The crispy noodles soak up the sauce while still retaining a bite. Although the noodles at our table did get a bit sodden, it was mostly because six other dishes and a conversation on the merits of a resort holiday distracted us from consuming the crispy noodles at their optimal textural range. The sautéed duck in a soybean sauce with the Chinese kale and peppers also stands out texturally, with the duck’s crispy skin nicely complementing the Thai gravy that it was topped with.
Then there is the tom yum, consistently delicious with its fragrant lemongrass and fish sauce and still not a disappointment, all these meals later.
With seven dishes on the table there was plenty of food to share with fellow diners, if you felt indulgent. I always want more of a helping of The Villa’s lime and chili sprinkled dishes, but that is because I am a glutton, for those of you who enjoy human-sized portions, The Villa’s dishes are excellent for sharing.
The Villa also features a couple of Chinese and Pinoy (Filipino) dishes, if you want to curtail various cravings all in one go. In a city such as Riyadh, where eating out is a city-wide past time, it’s disappointing to think that everyone flocks to high-priced, overrated restaurants as a go to place for Asian-fusion cuisine when The Villa offers a wider range of dishes at a much higher and more authentic standard.
The restaurant has been around for more than a decade, and despite its hole-in-the-wall look, it has survived and garnered a following.
Sometimes the charm of a place is beyond its seating arrangement and fancy tablecloths but whether or not they can simply deliver delicious food, and The Villa frankly delivers.
The only thing I can complain about is that waiters will occasionally forget your Coca-Cola order, especially during prayer time, as they wait out the compulsory closure in the front room. Honestly though, forgetting to bring the order of Coke is not the worse thing, it simply means more caloric space for another helping of phanaeng curry and rice.