Some of the Best Thai Food in Philadelphia Is at the Italian Market
Kalaya is a brilliant homage to southern Thai cooking.
Launched more than a century ago, Philadelphia’s Italian Market is one of the oldest of its kind in the country. The historic stretch of Ninth Street is lined with fresh flowers, produce vendors, fishmongers, hoagie shops, and butchers. Over the past several years, though, the neighborhood has grown to reflect the richly diverse city at large. In addition to imported cheeses and meats at Di Bruno Bros., housemade ravioli at Talluto’s, and aged-balsamic at Claudio’s, the market is home to restaurants selling Vietnamese pho, Greek spanakopita, and some of the country’s very best Mexican barbacoa. This spring, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon and her business partner, My-Le Vuong, added to the scene with Kalaya, their homage to southern Thai cuisine, and it's one of the city's most exciting new restaurants.
In 2009, Suntaranon moved from Thailand to Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood, across the street from Vuong. Before running a 36-seat Italian restaurant in Bangkok, Suntaranon grew up learning how to cook from her grandmother and mother, who ran a stall in the local food market. When she moved to the U.S., she attended the French Culinary Institute in New York, training at one point under chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Coincidentally, Vuong, too, worked for Vongerichten, as the assistant general manager of his now-closed southeast Asian restaurant Spice Market. The two women became friends, and last year, they started a small catering business, drawing on their respective experiences.
“We wanted to entertain; we were having a dinner party every night,” says Vuong. “It was fun for us, but we weren't trying to do anything big.”
Word of their distinctive dishes spread, though. Soon after starting the business, the pair, who were prepping food in Suntaranon’s kitchen, started looking for a bigger space. After seeing a string of disappointing spaces, they found one in the Italian Market, and immediately saw the potential for a restaurant. “I have experience in restaurants, and she loved to cook," says Vuong. "It was the perfect match. Everything just happened for a reason.”
The women signed the lease on February 9 and opened the 36-seat Kalaya, named for Suntaranon’s mom, just one month later. In a city already known for its vibrant and diverse food scene, the restaurant still feels like something entirely new. Inspired by dishes Suntaranon’s mother and grandmother made, the menu spotlights southern Thai cuisine—coconut rice, deeply-spiced curries, wok-fried fish—with most delivering a serious heat typical for the region. The seasonally-changing menu includes beautifully steamed whole branzino made with Thai chili, swimming in a fragrant lime sauce, and chewy peanut- and mushroom-filled tapioca dumplings in a vivid purple hue thanks to butterfly pea flowers.
“The dishes that I make here—most are from my childhood memories,” says Suntaranon. The khao yum, for example, is a version of the rainbow rice salad the chef’s mom made and sold at her food stall, with toasted coconut, dry shrimp, makrut lime leaf, ginger, and bean sprouts. Suntaranon makes the sauce from scratch (just like the curry paste and the rest of her sauces and stocks) and uses turmeric rice in place of the white rice, like her great grandmother did.
Since the recipe comes from a riff on her family’s recipe, the women don’t think you can get this dish anywhere else. Most of the menu, in fact, is unique for Philadelphia. The cuisine’s quintessential bold flavors and spice—and Suntaranon’s cheeky unwillingness to tone down the heat—sets it apart from anything else on the city’s food scene. (Although, it should be noted, they do accommodate dietary restrictions and make vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes.)
“I think we are what we are today because of the flavors,” says Suntaranon, “We are very honest with the flavors, with who we are. We aren't here to please the market, it’s not for everyone.” That the restaurant is booked solid for months proves it pleases many Philly diners.
The women feel lucky they found their place in the Italian Market. They support fellow local businesses, sourcing meat from nearby Esposito’s, and herbs and produce from the veggie stalls, and help represent the (relatively) new guard of restaurant owners and purveyors who are continuing to keep the historic area dynamic and relevant.
But if you ask them, they’re just cooking what they know. “It’s nothing special,” says Suntaranon. “This is what we eat. But I’m so proud of my food, and I’m so proud of where I come from.”