The Enduring Power of Kalaya
Chef Nok Suntaranon scaled up her iconic Bella Vista BYO, but her autobiographical Thai dishes haven't wavered in the giant, new Fishtown space.
Just about everyone who loved the original Kalaya was concerned that when Nok Suntaranon opened her new version in Fishtown, it would lose some of the magic that made the first one so special. As if an address, a geometry of furniture, four walls and a roof, can define a restaurant so intimately personal.
The old Kalaya, with 32-odd seats on South 9th Street in Bella Vista, was a marvel — a success story decades in the making that Nok treated like an ever-evolving tribute to Thai cuisine, the flavors of her childhood, and her mother, for whom it was named. It was warm, close, welcoming as an embrace — and, ultimately, limiting. There were menu items (drinks, certain recipes) she was never able to do there, heights of style and substance to which she couldn’t rise.
The new one? Bigger, for starters — 145 seats in an old warehouse on Palmer Street, skylights under which palm trees spread. A bar with whiskey-spiked tea and beer slushies lifted from the streets of Bangkok. Deep banquettes, and a kitchen with space for a dozen cooks. And it is different, for sure. It’s crowded, loud, hectic, bright, deliberate in ways that the original Kalaya never had a chance to be, because so many choices there were defined by the space, by finances, by the shock of being a new business. But Nok started all of this years ago as a way to share how food is eaten in Thailand. In that pursuit, she hasn’t wavered.
Take, for example the goong chae nam pla — raw shrimp, butterflied, folded inside out, served marinating in a cold broth of garlic, lime juice and fish sauce, topped with a slaw of chopped cabbage, bitter melon, and Thai bird chilies red as a traffic light. It’s sharply spicy, stingingly bitter, citrusy and vegetal all at the same time, compounded by the snap of raw shrimp. It’s a dish you can bounce right off of if you don’t think for a minute. If you don’t shape your mind around this architecture of spice, this balance of sourness that gets into your blood and makes you only want more.
And there are moments like this to be had all over Kalaya’s menu — Nok’s menu. The charred, curled edges of grilled squid, the sweet-sour play of tamarind and pineapple with poached fish, the crisp cored cucumber beneath the soft shaw muang flower dumplings carried over from the old Kalaya menu. On a whim one night, I asked for a side of pad pak kad dong, tacking it onto an order that was already too large for my table as though in the moment, I had a sudden urge for pickled mustard greens and egg and just happened to find them here. Served in a plastic bowl, the shredded greens were punchy with vinegar and roughed up with garlic, tangled with ribbons of scrambled egg and chunks of melon. It was remarkable, savory and light in a way that seemed to defy the gravity of the ingredients. Comforting like leftover collards, like memories of morning-after spinach-and-egg omelets at a diner in your hometown.
There’s a connective element to eating Kalaya’s food that transcends a particular culture. I found luxury in goong phao, split like a lobster tail, served with its own tomalley, nam jin, whole-leaf herbs, chips of fried shallot and jasmine rice, meant to be chopped together and mixed inside the roasted shell. I found comfort in beefy gaeng massaman nua with coconut milk that blooms in the dark sauce like cream poured into black coffee, with whole white and purple potatoes that can be split and mashed into the rice like a bedding for sweet and tender slow-cooked beef.
This Kalaya is different from the old Kalaya. That’s true. It’s bolder and arguably more fun. (The liquor license helps.) But the urge that has driven Nok from the start to share stories through food — to share herself through food — hasn’t changed. Her biographical version of Thai cuisine is a 50-year memoir sketched in curry and flower dumplings, bitter melon and river prawns, and the space, pretty as it is, is just the box that holds it all.
Not everything here will be for everyone. It will speak to different spice tolerances and different voices. Kalaya is a place — the Fishtown space, the menu — where you have to find your own way in. And that’s fine. We are, all of us, weird little polygons. We come to every table hoping only to find a place to fit — to love something, connect to something, learn something. To find our place in someone else’s story. And now, Nok’s magic — the thing she carried over from Bella Vista to Fishtown, from a 32-seat BYO to this dream restaurant with its palm trees and massive staff — lets even more of us find our way.
4 Stars — Come from anywhere in America
0 stars: stay away
★: come if there are no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in Philly
★★★★: come from anywhere in America
Published as “Kalaya 2.0” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.