Sambal Shiok is one of my favourite London restaurants. A quick glance through my phone’s
gallery shows that I’ve measured out the past five years of my life in laksa spoons. Here’s the first ever bowl of fiery, coconut-enriched noodle soup that I ever snapped, sitting at the bar in the bright red-and-blue room on Holloway Road in 2018, a week after Sambal Shiok opened – it was the earliest I’d been able to get a seat, so instantly popular was owner Mandy Yin’s new bricks-and-mortar outing (she’d previously run sell-out pop-ups).
Here are two identical shots, snapped four months apart: one a celebration on the night I finished my first novel and the other a consoling hug in a bowl while I waited to hear if it had sold to a publisher. There has barely been a big moment in my life, happy or sad, that I haven’t marked with a pilgrimage up the Piccadilly line.
Surely all of this ought to disqualify me from reviewing the place? The opposite, I argued to
Time Out’s food and drink editor – as someone who’s been going at least once a month since Sambal Shiok launched, ordered from them during lockdown and even had a bash at making my own version of the signature nyonya curry laksa at home (mixed results, I don’t think I’ll be offered a job any time soon), I’m better placed than almost anyone to deliver a well-rounded verdict.
A meal here feels special but still accessible
So, here I was again, sitting at the counter on a busy Wednesday night with a pal who’s almost as much of a Sambal Shiok superfan as I am. Both of us are creatures of habit here, and ordered the shrimp-based curry laksa as standard (hers with poached chicken, mine with extra tofu puffs and charred aubergine). Tonight, in the interests of journalistic integrity, we decided to go off-piste and get all the snacks to share, plus a bowl of assam laksa, which is full of the same fat rice noodles but lighter and more herbal than the house special, spicy-sour with mackerel, mint and pineapple.
The Malaysian fried chicken that arrived first was some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the city, greaseless with an almost brick-red crunch without, tender within. We dredged it through the accompanying peanut sauce and the tomato that came with the fenugreek crackers, piling crunchy gado-gado salad on top. As we greedily worked our way through our feast we saw the same dishes being carried to a long table on giant sharing salvers, accompanied by oohs and aahs. There were a couple of parties in, plus a lot of dates: with prices for mains in the mid-teens and all the drinks under £10, a meal here feels special but still accessible. The wines are all German, chosen to cut nicely through all the richness and spice, while non-drinkers have an impressively strong selection of alcohol-free cocktails (side note: all the food here is halal).
Every restaurant has its ups and downs, especially in the current climate, and in the time I’ve been making the pilgrimage to 171 Holloway Road, there have inevitably been occasions when things have been a little less than perfect. But after this visit, I can confidently say that right now Sambal Shiok is the best it’s ever been. Here’s to the next five years, and many more after that.
The vibe A bona-fide north London institution.
The food Supremely comforting bowls of laksa, plus some of London’s most elite fried chicken.
The drinks Well-chosen, well-priced German wines.
Time Out tip Going with a group? Get all the starters to share – they’ll be served in high style.