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Kalaya review: The thrill of Southern Thai food rarely tasted in Philly

Don't expect pad Thai.

The sakoo sai hed — tapioca dumplings with shiitake mushroom and peanut filling, red chili, and lettuce — at Kalaya Authentic Thai Kitchen.
The sakoo sai hed — tapioca dumplings with shiitake mushroom and peanut filling, red chili, and lettuce — at Kalaya Authentic Thai Kitchen.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

There’s budu magic going down at Kalaya on South Ninth Street. And with my taste buds still tingling at the mere thought of its Southern Thai powers, I am happily under its spell.

True, chef and co-owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon may not be curing her own mackerel into the fermented fish condiment known as budu like her mother, Kalaya Suntaranon, has always done in a barrel under the kitchen counter in their village in Trang Province. But she has so deftly captured the bold flavors and hand-crafted spirit of her family’s cooking at this unexpected — in fact, accidental — Italian Market BYOB, that the vibrant array of dishes I ate there were more compelling than any others I’ve tasted at Thai restaurants in Philadelphia before.

And so, when she drizzles her sweet, budu-fueled palm sugar dressing over a colorful khao yum kamin rice salad — a scoop of turmeric rice ringed by a pinwheel of vegetables, shaved coconut, two kinds of baby shrimp (dried and fried) and red chilies — it is simply transporting.

The dressing itself is a broodingly complex syrup, dark of caramelized sugar and pineapple cores, lit with a Southeast Asian swagger. Aromatic galangal, kaffir lime, and lemongrass are shadowed by the pulsing note of the budu’s tidal funk, backed by a chorus of fish sauce and shrimp paste. And when it’s blended tableside into the fresh salad, each forkful of ginger-scented rice carries a rainbow of textures and flavors. Threads of green mango crunch against thin-sliced long beans, watermelon radish, juicy cucumbers, and those tiny crustaceans, all shined in a glaze that simultaneously delivers sweetness, spice, and an insistent whiff of the ocean.

It was just one of many brilliant flavors to emerge from this kitchen. There are a number of distinctive, hand-blended curries for chicken, crab, beef, and barramundi that evoke the fragrant sauces that young Suntaranon made each morning for her mother’s market food stall before heading off to school. There are tiny tapioca dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and peanuts, the chewy exteriors colored indigo-blue with butterfly pea flowers, just like her grandmother, Sopin Davhisuwan, taught her.

Suntaranon deliberately avoids the familiar options of pad Thai and chicken satay in favor of more boldly spiced dishes inspired by her family’s Nyonya-style Peranakan cuisine, which weaves ethnic Chinese and Malay threads into a distinctive Southern Thai repertoire. And refreshingly, her renditions never tap the brakes for the perceived limitations of Western palates. A ceviche-style dish called goong chae nam pla brings huge shrimp in a fiercely sour nam jim of fish sauce and lime tangled with fistfuls of cilantro, bitter melon, and lip-stinging crushed chilies that heighten the buttery sweetness of the raw crustacean. A warm starter of ground duck laab crunches with nuggets of crispy skin, roasted rice powder, and red chilies that are patiently toasted until “they start to make me sneeze,” says Suntaranon.

“It’s not for everybody,” says Suntaranon’s partner and dining room manager, My-Le Vuong. “Because the spice level cannot be adjusted and [Suntaranon] will not adjust it. We can’t change the integrity of the dishes here. We don’t want to discourage people, but it is spicy, you know.”

As thrilling as this food is, it’s just as remarkable that Kalaya even exists as a restaurant. Suntaranon and Vuong, who had become friends and business partners as Queen Village neighbors, were actually looking for a commissary space to expand their budding catering company this February when they happened on a former take-out shop run by Ralph’s Italian Restaurant next door. They loved the broad storefront window facing South Ninth Street and the warm neighborhood feel. It also begged to be a restaurant. “Should we do this?” Vuong asked.

It was well beyond their price range: “I don’t know what happened to us, because I rarely carry my checkbook, but...” said Suntaranon, who said she impulsively put down a $4,000 deposit. “I knew I was in trouble with my husband when he got back from a trip and said, ‘No, honey, you’re not doing this.’”

But her husband, Wharton professor Ziv Katalan, quickly came around and became Kalaya’s primary investor. And his confidence wasn’t misplaced, because both women bring considerable experience. The Vietnamese-born Vuong, also the daughter of a food stall vendor, worked in restaurant management for several big New York names, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich.

Suntaranon, who spent nearly two decades as a flight attendant, also owned an Italian restaurant in Thailand before earning a culinary degree at the French Culinary Institute in New York, after which she, too, worked for Vongerichten as an intern, cooking Thai meals for the famed French chef.

Both had been out of the restaurant business for several years, though, when the Kalaya Moment struck. So when they quietly opened the doors to this 30-seat BYOB just three months later — the kitchen revamped, the walls hung with art, the air perfumed with fresh curry, and their modest budget exhausted — they were startled by the immediate response. The word of mouth that brought 50 customers their first night has quickly bloomed into multiple turns of the tables each night in the increasingly jammed and boisterous dining room, taxing even their wildest expectations.

“I’m losing my voice every night,” says Vuong, acknowledging the major noise problem they’re in the process of addressing.

Yes, the room is terribly loud. But it’s the full-volume flavors that are calling the hungry crowds to Ninth Street. Because, for all of Philly’s diverse culinary wonders, such boldly authentic Thai food has never been one of them, with most places leaning on standard menus, inexpensive ingredients to keep prices cheap, and flavors that dip heavy toward the coconut milk sweetness that is just one leg in Thai food’s complex dance with sourness, spice, and funk.

The irresistible grilled beef salad served with green Thai eggplants, lime juice, and mint is so blasted with lemongrass, chilies, and herbs that it numbed my lips and gave my wife the hiccups. But we couldn’t stop eating that yum nua ma kua poa because the heat was not gratuitous. It was presented at its natural high voltage that allowed the spices to most vividly fill our brains.

“Why not be bold and take [Americans] to where we’re from?” says Suntaranon proudly. She does not shy from amping her budu with extra shrimp paste, dialing up the chili spice, or sparing the time and effort it takes to make her curry bases from scratch, which most restaurants do not bother with.

It pays off sublimely in the sultry chicken curry called kang gai khao mun, for example, in which both dried and fresh red chilies are ground with garlic, shallots, lemongrass, turmeric, and lots of white peppercorns, then cooked down for hours with coconut cream, shrimp paste and chicken. Served alongside coconut rice greened with pandan leaves and garlic, the flavors bloom from the coconut’s initial richness into waves of aromatics and lingering roasty spice.

A crab meat curry turns that spice level down one notch with more coconut milk richness, then lavishes the brew with sweet lump crab, to be served over fine rice noodles. Dusky red chilies and whole green peppercorns combine with kaffir leaves, sweet Thai basil, and pepper powder to punch up ground beef curry. A lamb panang special, cooked for hours in a red curry redolent of coriander and cumin, channels pure lamb luxury in its tender meat. A brothy “water curry” called kang som pla blends shrimp paste with garlic, turmeric, and sweet pineapple to showcase fresh chunks of meaty barramundi fish.

Seafood, in general, is one of Kalaya’s strengths. A whole steamed branzino was majestic in the same chili-lime sauce used for the shrimp ceviche — but it registered more mildly against the warm, flaky fish. The fish cakes are hardly the sexiest item on the menu, but they may also be one of my favorites. The crisp brown rounds of pureed fish blended with coconut milk, fish sauce, and curry paste are so soft inside and full of flavor, they have the crunchy-creamy texture and magnetic savor of a great Thai latke.

Another seafood dish not to miss, meanwhile, is the goong aob woon sen, a trio of huge shrimp steamed in a covered pan over Chinese celery and glass noodles splashed with gluten-free soy and oyster sauce. The noodles are like silken threads. This, along with the wok-fried pork in shrimp paste, is one of the few milder dishes here.

Then again, so does the stir-fried cabbage, a side dish so deceptively simple — even frumpy — I could hardly believe how amazingly sweet they were, the snappy leaves singed by the smoky breath of a hot wok. (“I’ve always wanted a wok,” Suntaranon confesses.) And so now I’m suddenly obsessed with Kalaya’s cabbage. Budu magic and the hands of a master Thai chef are too powerful to resist.