A lesson in why some things are best left unchanged. By Damon Fairclough
Change is in the air. It’s in every creak of those shiny new school shoes, every fold of that baggy new school blazer. It’s in the return of the school run, in the yellowing of leaves, in the certain knowledge that nothing, regardless of how much we may yearn for it, can ever remain the same.
Well, almost nothing. Because while restaurants come and go, and menus are nipped and tucked in an effort to find that one winning formula that works, there is a corner of Allerton Road in which this process seems to have ground to a halt.
The six gleaming meat bullets are jammed onto wooden skewers, each one exploding in a burst of pungent, white-hot garlicky juice
Chaba Chaba is an unassuming neighbourhood Thai restaurant on the quieter stretch of Allerton Road – the bit that sits tucked in beyond the main thoroughfare as it sweeps round towards Mather Avenue. Alongside the so-far defiant modernist form of Allerton Library and an ever-present pet shop decorated with a mural of lions, rhinos and elephants (what kind of exotic pets do people have round here?), its menu remains in stasis, an unchanging selection of reliable Thai staples that seems to defy time.
The restaurant has been in situ for the best part of a decade, but unless I’m mistaken, the menu is virtually identical to the day it first opened. The décor seems similarly protected from the universe’s relentless temporal churn, and Chaba Chaba wears those long years lightly. Its dimly-lit dark wood and deep red interior is as seductively welcoming as it always was, and though there’s perhaps a little wonkiness and tilt to the light shades these days, the march of time seems to halt outside the door.
That being the case, and having visited a few times over the years, I already felt I knew what to expect from Chaba Chaba. But whether those expectations would be met was another matter. Just because the menu looks the same, surely the food must be subject to forces beyond anyone’s control? On the strength of the starters though, perhaps not.
A complimentary basket of tanned prawn crackers on a doily kicks things off in the customary manner. Customary, that is, if you’ve been to Chaba Chaba at any time since day one.
Vegetable spring rolls (£4.95) are standard issue examples of the genre, being tight little crispy tubes packed with vermicelli noodles and lightly spiced veg. True, they don’t give many visual clues to indicate that they aren’t from Iceland, but there’s a satisfying crunch and the contents are much more than just mush. Without any grease or oiliness, they are a decent enough start to the meal.
A portion of Thai garlic sausages (£5.95) is more interesting. The six gleaming meat bullets are jammed onto wooden skewers, each one exploding in a burst of pungent, white-hot garlicky juice.
However, it’s the salad garnish decorating both dishes that delivers the fiercest nostalgic rush. True, it’s immediately recognisable from every previous visit – a tangle of carrot shavings nestling in the cupped palm of a lettuce leaf. But isn’t that scribble of carrot spaghetti also deeply reminiscent of freshly-spurted Silly String, the aerosol product that used to be discharged liberally at moments of high jinks 30 years ago?
I have plenty of opportunities to indulge this somewhat strained metaphor, as the same dried-out neon knot appears on every subsequent dish except the desserts, and again on every other table in the room. Whether anyone actually eats it is quite another matter.
Adequate as the starters are though, it’s the main courses that make it clear why Chaba Chaba still pulls in the Allerton regulars, despite the fierce culinary competition that takes place a little further along the street.
The soy sauce noodles with crispy tofu (£7.95) are presented as an attractive bundle of ingredients and flavours, a satisfying stir-fried dish with just-firm-enough vegetables and a freshness that makes the sad carrot garnish look very misplaced.
Best of all though is the red curry with pork (£7.95), a sweetish and delicate dish with a reverberating chilli kick. Eaten with a portion of pearl-like sticky rice, and featuring yielding hunks of crinkle-cut sweet potato, the curry is the pick of the evening – just the kind of thing to keep local people coming back through the door.
A side dish of "morning glory", or stir-fried water spinach (£5.95), is also excellent, although its resemblance to the nauseating hair-and-matter concoction that gets stuck in our shower plughole is unfortunate. Sharing the meal with my son, whose flowing locks make him the prime culprit, makes for an uncomfortable dad-son encounter.
When it comes to choosing something sweet, the dessert menu lacks a little choice, with two of the options being offerings from the distinctly non-Thai Cheshire Farm ice-cream portfolio.
The caramelised banana (£3.95) is poor, the fruit having the taste and texture of over-boiled potato, and though I try to switch the vanilla ice-cream accompaniment for the more intriguing black sesame seed ice-cream featured on the menu, the waitress just smiles and says, “I’m afraid we can’t do that,” in the manner of HAL from 2001.
The green tea ice-cream (£3.95) is delicious though, being subtly fragrant with the scent of an actual exotic cuppa. The menu also features a “Chaba Chaba crispy pancake” (unrelated to the Findus variety I imagine) along with mango and sticky coconut rice, but if two dollops of tea-tinted ice-cream can taste so good, why opt for anything else?
There’s no city centre pizzazz at Chaba Chaba, no expectation that much will have changed, and certainly no sense that culinary boundaries will be breached. But for the most part it’s decent stuff, with a freshness and zing that can be all too easily drowned out by the syrupy sauces that some Thai outlets dispense.
For families who can’t be bothered making tea, or couples with something modest to celebrate, or anyone who likes to know what they’re in for, it’s a solid neighbourhood restaurant that understands what its role is in life.
And if that means throwing a bunch of tasteless noodle-cut carrots at dishes that often deserve rather more, so be it.
All scored Confidential reviews are paid for by the company, never the venue or a PR outfit. Critics dine unannounced and their opinions are completely independent of any commercial relationships.
179-181 Allerton Road
L18 6HG. 0151 724 2033
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind in the area: fine dining v the best fine dining, Sunday roasts against the best Sunday roasts, etc. On this basis, the scores represent...
1-5: The dog's dinner; 6-9: Netflix and chill; 10-11: In an emergency; 12-13: If you happen to be passing; 14-15: Worth a trip out; 16-17: Very good to exceptional; 18-20: As good as it gets.
Vegetable spring rolls 6.5/10; Thai garlic sausages 7.5/10; Soy sauce noodles with crispy tofu 7/10; Red curry with pork 8/10; Morning glory 8/10; Caramelised banana 4/10; Green tea ice-cream 8/10
Nothing’s too much trouble… except swapping ice-cream
Smart and seductive, same as it ever was