June 16, 2020
Philadelphia's Italian Market is celebrated for its traditional cuisines, fresh groceries and historical charm, but it's a relative newcomer that's attracting national attention.
Kalaya, a Southern Thai restaurant, has been named one of the best new spots in the United States by Food & Wine.
While Kalaya opened in the spring of 2019, the restaurant found its way onto the 2020 list because the coronavirus pandemic has rendered new openings virtually impossible.
Food & Wine's Khushbu Shah wrestled with whether putting together a list still made sense in light of the pandemic and civil unrest, but ultimately decided it was worthwhile.
"A pandemic doesn’t cancel the work that these remarkable chefs and restaurant owners have done over the past year," Shah wrote. "Maybe these sorts of declarations are cliché at this point, but it was truly an incredible year for dining in America."
Kalaya was founded by Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon and her business partner My-Le Vuong, who started catering together and realized their popularity had greater potential. The 36-seat restaurant, named after Suntanaron's mother, opened at 764 S. 9th St. in March of last year.
Here's what Shah had to say about the her experience at Kalaya:
Half the reason to visit Kalaya, in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood, is owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon’s passionate Thai cooking, and half is to meet Nok herself. The preeminent hostess, Nok, a former flight attendant, has as much personality as her food has flavor—which is to say, boundless. There is no pad thai or ambiguous red curry to be found here. Nok instead prepares dishes pulled from memories of cooking Southern Thai food with her mother. There are irresistibly chewy tapioca dumplings dyed indigo with butterfly pea flowers and stuffed with mushrooms and peanuts. A silky chicken curry, known as kang gai khao mun, melds garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and lots of white peppercorn with coconut milk and shrimp paste. Even Nok’s take on tom yum soup, which arrives teeming with fresh giant shrimp, barramundi, and mushrooms, is full of seasoning and flare. Kalaya’s cooking is theatrical and bold, and Philadelphia is better for it.
Suntaranon explained to Food & Wine that Kalaya's business model has shifted to takeout during the pandemic because she is doing everything in her power to keep her staff employed. She also is working to help feed the community and provide meals to those in the restaurant industry who have lost their jobs, as well front line workers at hospitals.
If you'd like to get a taste of what Kalaya has to offer, the restaurant is holding a takeout-only pop-up this Thursday, June 18, at Fiore Fine Foods in South Philadelphia, located at 757 South Front Street.