It is no secret that Kalaya is one of Fishtown’s best restaurants, and it’s for good reason. Chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon has been serving Thai food to the northern Philadelphia neighborhood since April of 2019 and has received much acclaim while doing so, including the winner of the Best Chef Mid–Atlantic James Beard Award. The food is bound to impress, and for what you’re paying for, Kalaya definitely delivers in both culinary experience and ambiance.
For a well–hyped, high–end dining place such as Kalaya, expectations are fairly high. And although it’s a bit on the pricier side, the experience makes it worthwhile. A moonlit, candle–light aesthetic accompanies my nighttime visit and though there isn't a single table or bar seat empty, the service is beyond attentive.
Seated in the middle of the restaurant right next to giant pots of towering greenery, we have an optimal view of the place. Though not completely visible, the kitchen faces out toward the patrons, and lined up in front of the expo are the numerous waitstaff. Though the lights are dim, pockets of glow are scattered across the restaurant and a turquoise hue shines through the bar. Bright colors accent much of the decor as well as the food.
Kalaya’s menu lays out its various options with the assumption that the dishes will be shared family style. Its offerings include dumplings, appetizers, salads, curry, stir fry, larger entrees, and a number of sides. For the most part, the food arrives as soon as it's ready in hopes that it will be enjoyed in phases or a loose course style. The menu also has a variety of beverage options and many tables around us enjoy a specialty cocktail or a frozen beer with their meal.
To begin, we're served the gui chai, a garlic chive rice cake with spicy and sweet soy sauce. The crispy, warm cake is tasty enough by itself, but with the sauce, the filling square absorbs its spicy kick. Much of Kalaya’s dishes are on the spicy side, and this dish offers a more gradual introduction to what’s about to come.
Next, we receive an order of jui guay dumplings. The dish consists of five pink and green doughy rice cups topped with a dollop of minced shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. The dish also comes with the sweet and spicy soy sauce, though the dumpling has its own hint of spice. The rice cups provide a nice neutral but cute base for the salty mushroom mixture. My preconception of what a dumpling could be is challenged upon looking at the petite, colored cups, but the payoff is tasty and satisfying.
Though our starters are a great entrance into Kalaya’s fun, intricate plating style and rich spice profile, the prik king jae served as our main dish definitely takes the cake. Accompanied by jasmine rice and a side of cabbage with fish sauce and palm sugar (kalum tod nam pla), the prik king jae is made up of crispy tofu, long beans, and peppers in dry red curry. Not quite the spiciest dish on Kalaya’s menu, the curry still brings a kick which pairs well with the sweeter cabbage. After the previous courses, it doesn't take long for the curry to fill me up, though the server is helpful in packing up the rest that couldn’t be finished.
It isn’t often that I’m able to make the trek to Fishtown or that my wallet can support the menu’s options, but the Kalaya experience is definitely worth the journey. With wonderful service and ambient decor, Kalaya is perfect for a date or even just a celebration with friends. Its equally gorgeous and delicious dishes also provide a hip dining experience. And weather you’re deathly afraid of hot foods or feel as if nothing you eat is spicy enough, Kalaya is almost sure to have something around your range. Just make sure to bring a group to enjoy the food as it is meant to be eaten: family style.
TL;DR: Kalaya is one of Philly's best bets not only for Thai cuisine, but for ambience and aesthetics as well.
Location: 4 W Palmer St.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 p.m.–10 p.m; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m.–11 p.m.; Open for lunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.–2 p.m.