Let’s Do Lunch at Mai Thai at The Old Steps

It’s funny how a place seems to keep cropping up throughout your life.

In the early 1970s I worked as the manager of a betting shop in East Parade and one of my regular punters, who later became a good friend, did the racing commentaries for Extel. In those days it was illegal to have a television or radio on licensed betting premises, so a company called Exchange Telegraph, Extel, would have people on every racecourse who produced a commentary on each race and this would be transmitted to a central office where, in turn, an operative like my mate Geoff, would repeat it down a telephone line to all of the betting shops in the area who would have their receiver connected to an amplifier so that the customers could keep track of how quickly their money was dwindling.

The point of this reminiscence is that Geoff once suggested that we go for a beer after work at his favourite watering hole, The Old Steps. I gladly accepted and off we went for what was to become a regular evening session. The pub had about as much atmosphere as the moon but the people who frequented it were a varied crew comprising largely of journalists from the Yorkshire Post which had recently moved to brand new premises at the end of Wellington Street. Geoff was familiar with the racing correspondent John Morgan and so the subject matter of the evenings’ conversations was a bit limited. We would also be joined by Mick Kaminski, the chap who played the blue violin in the Electric Light Orchestra, when he wasn’t on tour. A few months later I was made relief manager so worked in a different town every week to cover for holidays, so the regular boozy dos came to an end, for me at least.

Wind the clock on thirty years and I am living in Sowerby Bridge and in yet another pub with my mate David who was a VAT accountant in Leeds. We decided to have a change of scene so a trip to Leeds was mooted for the following Friday evening after work. David suggested we meet at his local from work, you guessed it, The Old Steps. It hadn’t changed a bit except for the drinkers. They were now office workers of various grades, the Yorkshire Post building having been closed down as, some years later, was The Old Steps itself.

On Friday I had been asked to review a show at the City Varieties, so was looking for somewhere to eat who did a lunch menu which didn’t end at three o’clock. What should pop up on my radar but The Old Steps,, which is now a branch of the small chain of My Thai restaurants and serves lunch until five o’clock on Fridays, thus making it perfect for a pre-theatre nosh. The rest of the week, lunch finishes at three so I took it as an omen.

All photographs by Stan Graham

I arrived at four-thirty to find the premises closed and dark. Descending the eponymous steps I could see some members of staff sitting at a table and as the door was unlocked I entered to see what was going on. The lady who seemed to be in charge told me that they didn’t open until five so I informed her that their website and the board outside declare that they are open from 11.30 until 10.00 on Fridays. I genuinely believe that she didn’t know what day it was. Anyway, she turned on all of the lights, took an order for a bottle of Chang beer at £3.50 to keep me company whilst I perused the menu, and agreed that I could order from the lunch section.

I had looked at the menu on line and found it a bit confusing when it came to the lunch part as you pick your main component, in my case I went for the duck, and then an accompaniment such as noodles or rice from certain parts of the main menu. The rice dish I asked for was listed as Tamarind Duck and described as ‘Crispy Duck with Tamarind and Palm Sugar Sauce’. Did this mean that I was in for a double duck, or a pair as they say in cricket?  Time would tell. There were starters shown on the printed version whereas online they are referred to as being on the ‘All Day Menu’. They were very well priced so I pushed the boat out and ordered Steamed Pork Dumplings at £2.50. A plate of four arrived in a vinegar dressing which was great counterpoint to the doughy delicacies. They were perfectly cooked and the minced pork on the inside was flavoursome and also well cooked. So far so good.

A short time later the main dish was served and the answer to my question revealed. The rice itself, which was plain boiled rice, was accompanied by a bed of vegetables in the Tamarind and Palm Sugar Sauce with the duck I had ordered laid on top and covered with small crisp strips of duck. The rice was a bit bland but the duck dish more than made up for it. The flavours of the sauce were sweet but not too cloying and the portion was of a good size for lunchtime. My only criticism is that the duck was far too well done for my taste. It wasn’t tough by any means but I do like to see some pink in the meat. I felt that it had been cooked and sliced sometime before and just warmed up and added at the last minute. At £8.50 it certainly was good value for money.

There are two tariffs on the menu; £7.50 if you choose chicken, beef, pork or tofu, and £8.50 should you opt for duck, prawns or crispy chicken. As is customary in Thai Restaurants, the service was very good except that the starter had not been included on my bill but this was remedied when I pointed it out. Should you wish to dine al fresco, al desko or at home, they serve take away at a reduced price. A delivery service is also available.

I think that the people at Mai Thai should thank me for dining there as, when they turned the lights on, a couple of women came in as did a party of nine! Having walked into a dark room to the sound of my own footsteps I left a busy, buzzing room with far more atmosphere than the old pub ever had.

Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living.  He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds.  He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.

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