London Food & Culture

The Paolina team of three,

Inside Paolina, the best Thai BYO in King’s Cross

We meet the owners of the longstanding Southeast Asian café

This KX stalwart has been around for aeons in one guise or another. Back in the early 90s, the dinky spot was home to an Italian café; then thirty years ago a Thai family took it on and began serving up Bangkok classics.

Low-key and brimming with friendliness, this casual eatery makes for a satisfying and value-for-money pit stop.

Chef at work in the Paolina kitchen
Chef at work. Photo: Laura Evans

We visit at 2pm and are greeted by a rather unassuming exterior. Inside, it’s inviting – there’s a teeny open-plan kitchen, monochrome chequered flooring and a retro vibe. The mad lunchtime rush has died down, but there are still a handful of tables occupied.

We peruse the concise menu board – there’s a selection of appetising staples such as tod mun pla (spicy fishcake), tom yum (hot and sour broth) and pad pak ruam (oyster sauce stir-fry). Mains (around a tenner or less) come with rice and veg, tofu, meat or seafood. If noodles are more your thing, go for tom kha (spicy coconut broth) or pad thai (we all know that one).


After placing our order, we go downstairs and grab a table in the wood-panelled low-level dining room. The walls are adorned with framed pictures of royalty, family and scenes from the homeland. It may be a little dark, but it’s relaxed and homely.

Our starter of kanom jeeb kicks things off swimmingly. A Thai take on Chinese shumai dim sum, densely packed minced chicken, shrimp and water chestnut, is partially enveloped in super light pasta-like dough and steamed. What makes it sing? Pungent garlic oil and sweet soya for dipping, and a smattering of spring onion and coriander. A two-bite treasure.

A plate of Paolina kanom jeeb
Paolina kanom jeeb. Photo: Laura Evans

Next up is shellfish red curry. AKA kang dang, it’s a warm and comforting mixture of coconut milk blended with spice paste. There’s an explosion of flavour from the sauce: Thai basil with its trademark anise twang fuses with aromatic lemongrass, galangal (similar to ginger but sharper and more citrusy), fragrant kaffir lime and an undertone of chilli.

Plump, juicy prawns dot the plate, mingling with an array of artfully chopped veg (all healthily crunchy). It’s a generous portion, sitting atop a mound of sticky jasmine rice: balanced, with nothing overpowering.

The space is cosy; we can’t help but overhear the table next door: “The food is incredible,” one of the diners says. “We’ve all stopped talking. It’s always really tasty.”

Come 6pm, the options are more extensive, and include the likes of crispy fish fillet topped with black pepper sauce and roasted duck curry. Dessert is offered too, traditional delights such as mango with sweet sticky rice and banana fritters.

To drink? Cheapskates, we choose to glug down tap, but if you fancy beer or vino, it’s BYO for two quid per person.

We talk to our server Ladda before leaving. “I’ve been in London for about seven years,” she says. “I’m from Bangkok originally; when I retired I came over here. The restaurant belongs to my sister’s son; he’s away on holiday at the moment so I’m helping out.”

And the name Paolina? “The previous owner was Italian,” says Ladda, “that’s where it comes from. Nobody has changed it, it’s lucky.” The feminine variation of Paul, it means ‘small’ – a fitting moniker for the compact premises.

Paolina wooden low-lit interior
Paolina interior. Photo: Laura Evans

As we talk, a man comes in to order a takeaway; he greets Ladda like an old friend and they have a quick catch up whilst the chef prepares his meal, expertly tossing vegetables in her wok. “We have a lot of old customers,” Ladda says. “Plus, there’s been so much construction, bringing more offices and people – that’s brought in business.”

They buy their ingredients from wholesalers and Chinatown. What’s their most popular dish? “Green curry,” Ladda says. “Although I love every type of Thai food, sometimes I eat British snacks too.”

We leave the place armed with a package of dried fruit courtesy of Ladda and an open invitation to visit again, next time for dinner.

Paolina, open Mon-Sat (12-3pm & 6-10pm), at 181 King’s Cross Rd WC1

This review was updated 21.12/23

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