Kalaya Thai Kitchen is the new and buzzing restaurant at Ninth and Catharine streets in South Philadelphia that delivers beautifully presented, authentic Thai dishes in a tastefully spare dining room.
The brainchild of Chef Nok Suntaroanon and My-Le Voung, Kalaya Thai opened in the spring. The duo has worked together for years hosting private parties and catering special events, and decided to launch a place of their own to showcase the unique flavors of Thailand.
Kalaya is named for Suntaroanon’s mother, Kalaya, who inspired the restaurant and its menu. The dishes are all based on Kalaya’s traditional Thai recipes, and Suntaroanon takes particular pride in the love and care that infuses each preparation, a culinary philosophy she learned at her mother’s knee. Kalaya Thai Kitchen emphasizes fresh, seasonal ingredients, a high level of detail and a sense of home.
Fortunately for me, I dined at Kalaya with a regular, so she guided me on our selections, and we sampled a good cross section of the menu.
We started with tod mun pla, or fried fish cakes — these were crispy, with a strong flavor. They were served with sweet chili sauce, which brought a welcome contrast to the fish cakes.
We moved on to sakoo sai hed, tapioca dumplings stuffed with shitake mushrooms and peanuts. The bright blue shade was a bit surprising, but I was told that the peas used in the preparation of the dough bring that color. The dumplings were toothsome and tasty with a variety of flavors and textures in each bite.
The yum nua ma kua poa, or grilled sliced beef salad, was by far my favorite item — the thinly sliced beef was tender and well flavored, and the accompanying eggplant, scallion, cilantro, mint and lemongrass presented a complex, fresh symphony of deliciousness.
The main courses are divided into two sections: curries, which are generally cooked in sauces or gravies, and wok fried/steamed.
We sampled the kang gai khao myn, chicken curry with cilantro and pandan (a type of leaf indigenous to Southeast Asia used in many traditional dishes.) The chicken pieces were tender and thoroughly infused with the seasonings, and the gravy delivered a velvety richness packed with fresh, robust flavors. By the end of the meal, after covering the rice with the gravy and consuming it all, I resorted to spooning the remnants of the curry directly into my mouth.
We also enjoyed a stir-fried eggplant dish, cooked with a salted soybean miso, Thai basil and long hot peppers.
Kalaya offers variety of rice options coconut rice, sticky rice and jasmine rice and a small selection of desserts. We sampled the coconut pudding topped with pineapple, which was fruity, cool and refreshing — an ideal finish to the meal.
Prices are modest and portions generous, with appetizers ranging from $12-14.50, salads from $15-19 and mains from $9.50-28.
Beer is considered the ideal accompaniment to Thai food, but we did just fine with a bottle of dry California rosé.
The restaurant is not kosher, and there are certainly a number of dishes that kosher-style diners would avoid; in addition, shrimp paste is used in some Thai dishes, so it is worth asking the question. That said, the vegetarian, chicken, fish and beef items on the menu would meet the needs of most kosher-style guests.
If you go:
Kalaya Thai Kitchen
764 S. Ninth St. (at Catherine Street)
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday starting at 5 p.m.
Lunch is served Saturdays from 12-3 p.m.