The Thai BYOB in Center City Serving Some of Philly’s Finest Meatballs
At Grandma's on Walnut Street, Donrutai “Chef Locket” Jainon draws inspiration from her Chiang Mai upbringing and her grandmother's recipes. You'll want to be a regular.
“Have you eaten here before?”
I lied and said no. The truth was, I’d heard my server, Jan Brookes, talk about the restaurant already, but I wanted to hear him describe Grandma’s again. He told me Grandma’s was a Thai tapas place, the only one in the Philly area, and that the dishes were meant for friends, for family, for sharing — even though I was there all by myself. He pointed to the QR code on the table, walked me through the menu, and said everything on it was cooked by his wife, Donrutai “Chef Locket” Jainon (who also owns Ratchada, at 11th and Washington), based on recipes she’d learned from her grandmother and from growing up in Chiang Mai.
“It’s really good,” he said, nodding, smiling. That part just stuck with me. Brookes was so proud. Six days a week since July, lunches and dinners, through rushes and lulls, and the excitement hadn’t been worn down in him yet. The orange liquor-license application was still posted in the window; the sign hanging over the front door was still handwritten. During my visits, he was the only server on the floor. He just wanted to show me what his wife could do. And rightly so.
Grandma’s is excellent. I had beef meatballs here that I can’t stop thinking about — tender, not overtly herby or sour (like I expected) but subtle, served in a thin, sweet gravy and topped with slivered scallion and flakes of fried onion for just the barest crunch. I ate the first one distractedly, not really paying attention, but then stopped, focused, drawn up short by the delicate sweetness, the hint of acid, the ego-free simplicity. In this city so obsessed with meatballs, trying to add to the canon is a baller move. You’ve got to believe that your meatballs (or your grandmother’s meatballs, in this case) are better than all the other meatballs out there. And here, Jainon’s confidence isn’t misplaced.
It happened again and again — that first-bite surprise, followed by me inhaling everything on the plate. Green curry, heavy on the coriander. Pork dumplings, hard-fried, with shells that crack like porcelain. Chicken satay and handmade Thai sausage. In Grandma’s Panang curry, chopped bell peppers and strong basil lend a vegetal roughness, balancing the one-note sweetness of coconut milk that so often dominates and making room for the gentle heat of red chili and a lingering saltiness. In the drunken noodles, rags of chicken cling to the wide noodles, all in a timeless, sticky sauce with deep, enduring funk. You can just eat and eat and it never feels like you can get enough.
Alone at my table, reading William Gibson and listening to the buzz of conversation around me (a young crowd, easy and chill and unhurried), I tore through curry puffs like I hadn’t eaten in a week — two perfect pastry shells with plaited edges like hand pies, stuffed with ground chicken, potatoes and curry powder. On the side, there was a clear sweet-and-sour syrup, sharp with vinegar and studded with diced cucumber, onion and peppers. That was the revelation. Those two flavors — the deep savory note of curry and pastry, the acidic sharpness and sugary shock of the sauce — worked so well together that I had to distract myself with meatballs when Brookes came back around to check on me just to avoid ordering a second plate.
And sure, Grandma’s operation has its chaotic elements. I’ve got my semantic issues with the “only Thai tapas in the Philly area” story, since the menu just reads as apps and entrées with a “tapas restaurant” shtick slapped on. I watched a guy walk out one night after the wait got too long, and I listened to another large table grumbling over the lag between courses. But truthfully, I don’t care that much. Not when the kitchen is this good.
Besides, there’s an honesty to the chaos here. A soulfulness to the restaurant that feels human. Halfway through my dinner, a Lady Gaga song came on the radio, and a woman at the table across from mine started singing along, softly and sweetly. “Come on,” she said to her table. “You don’t love this song?” By the time it ended, the entire front half of the dining room was singing. How do you not love a moment like that?
Grandma’s isn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t want it to be. I like it just the way it is — all scrappy and strange, with its Sharpie’d sign, mismatched plates, and spontaneous sing-alongs. And some remarkable Thai food. You’ll want to hang out there. You’ll wish it was closer. You’ll want it to be your regular spot.
I know I do. I can’t wait to go back.
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
Published as “A Night at Grandma’s” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.