Home Away From Home: Kalaya Reviewed
Kalaya brings the flavors of a Thai kitchen to Bella Vista.
On a weekday night, the dining room at Kalaya is cool and calm. Servers move smoothly between the tables. They stop and chat. Owners Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon and My-Le Vuong make the rounds, and when Suntaranon, the chef, comes by my table and sees that I’ve pushed back my kang poo pak tai — a deep bowl of spicy crabmeat curry with the hot slick of oil floating on top — even though it’s only half gone, she pauses, looks me up and down, purses her lips, and tsks me.
I smile at her and say, “Can’t help it. I’m stuffed.” Which is absolutely true, since I’ve already put away an entire order of fried fish cakes (maybe the best fish cakes in this town that knows a thing or two about fish cakes) and three massive fried chicken wings, marinated in fish sauce, served with a side of bright sweet/sour chili sauce, and half the crab curry, with its noodles, cucumber and chopped long bean, spiked with dangerous little nuggets of red Thai chili.
And Suntaranon smiles back before moving on, because she knows it’s not because the crab curry isn’t good or because I don’t like it. She cooks with the confidence of someone who knows that what’s coming from her kitchen is good — that it’s the best expression of the dishes she learned from her mother, Kalaya (for whom the restaurant is named), and brought from Thailand to this little space on 9th Street in Bella Vista. You’d never leave a drop of her curry behind unless, like me, you had a very real fear that one more bite might make you explode.
On a weekend, things are different. Not hugely, but still. The servers are quicker. Busier. Vuong is still on the floor, explaining the menu, helping people order, explaining where the whole coconuts come from that she serves with a straw for drinking the milk. They do a brisk takeout business, but the tables turn fast, too — full of curious first-timers and friends and people who’ve become regulars already, even though Kalaya has only been open for a couple months. There’s a woman in the corner, sitting alone, and the staff remembers what she liked last time, suggests new dishes. At another table, at the front of the restaurant, the diners ask Vuong about something they had at a party that she and Suntaranon catered. Something with chicken, they think. And curry. But it’s not on the menu here. She knows just what they’re talking about and suggests something similar.
Me, I’m just sitting there behind a Thai iced tea, thick and milky, trying hard to remember every detail about the toong tong so I can write about them later. So I can explain to you exactly how good they are — how delicious, how incredibly (almost laceratingly) crisp and golden, how unusual, how beautiful. They’re purses of spring- roll dough tied at the top with a bit of leaf, stuffed with potatoes and curry, with sweet chili sauce on the side. They smell of the crosscurrents of East Asian flavors, of ingredients moving back and forth across Myanmar between Thailand and India. It’s party food. A little fried snack with royal roots.
You get the same spike of cross-cultural frisson with the monkfish (pla thod kamin), fried in a wok, served in a bowl with a golden broth smelling of turmeric and garlic, black pepper and hot red chilies. There’s a Philadelphia connection in the pork with shrimp paste when you find the long hots in the bowl. And the whole branzino might seem like something you’ve seen a million times before, but none of them were like Suntaranon’s branzino — served whole, head-on, in a lime broth enriched by the fat from the fish, lent heat by the chopped chilies, some color from the tangle of herbs thrown on top. It gets filleted tableside by the staff, which is good because it falls to pieces almost as soon as you touch it, so tender you feel it might melt into the broth entirely.
Kalaya exists in the tension between those things — between styles, regions, traditions. It’s different things to different people, on different nights. But cool or crowded, busy or languid, this is the Thai restaurant Philly has been waiting for — the one that will define the top end of this cuisine in this city going forward. Neither too fancy nor too casual, neither storefront-cheap nor prohibitively expensive, not hyper-traditional but not dismissive, either. Kalaya walks a middle ground that feels fantastically modern while still nodding to the generations that have come before, and does it all with a knowing, confident smile.
Without a plate of pad Thai in sight.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country