Kalaya Thai Kitchen
We don’t know what Philly will look like in the future. There might be drones delivering our groceries and walking our dogs, or the city might be ruled by alien overlords driving pothole-proof hovercrafts. In reality, things probably won’t have changed that much—except it might be a few degrees hotter and a little closer to being underwater.
Whatever Philly’s future looks like, we’d be willing to bet that Kalaya will be a part of it. This Bella Vista spot is already the best restaurant in the area, and the excellent Thai food and night-out-BYOB energy make it a place we’d like to hang out at for the remainder of our years on earth.
The whole place is just one small room with bad acoustics, so when it’s crowded (which is always) it can be tough to hear the person across the table from you. But this atmosphere makes Kalaya feel like part of a night out—the kind of place that makes you want to plan ahead and find an occasion just as an excuse to eat there (even if that’s a double date with your couple friends who constantly fight in public). It’s a great place to go with a small group of friends and a few bottles of wine, as long as you don’t mind overhearing everything your neighbors talk about.
While the atmosphere makes it a fun place to hang out, the outstanding food is what will keep Kalaya around for the long haul. Some of our favorite things on the menu are the starters—like the salty, fried fish cakes. Another standout is the bright blue tapioca dumplings with a chewy shell and a sweet-and-spicy peanut shiitake filling. We wouldn’t hesitate to bring these dumplings as a gift to any alien race who makes first contact.
There are also excellent salads to share—like a very spicy ground duck salad with lime leaves, scallions, and fried shallots. The larger items on the menu are mostly curries and wok-fried or steamed dishes, and we suggest ordering a couple of different mains and pairing them together over sides of coconut, sticky, or jasmine rice. And you don’t want to miss the eggplant, which pairs really well with the wok-fried monkfish and coconut rice. The menu setup makes it easy to order a whole bunch of things and pass around the bowls until everyone’s happy.
Kalaya has quickly become one of our favorite BYOBs in the city. It certainly still has some kinks to work out—you might wait 15 or 20 minutes past your reservation time and the air conditioning has been broken on more than one of our trips here. But those are all easy fixes, and ones that will iron themselves out over time. Unless there’s an actual apocalypse, we don’t see Kalaya going anywhere for a while.
Sakoo Sai Hed
The tapioca dumplings, filled with a sweet and spicy peanut mix, are a must-order. They’re bright blue with a gummy texture, kind of like the tapioca marbles at the bottom of your bubble tea.
Tod Mun Pla
We’re not saying these golden discs are magic–we haven’t seen any cauldrons in the kitchen–but the blend of sweet chili jam, cucumber, and peanuts they come with definitely haunt us in a good way. Even though the fish cakes are firm and crispy, they still make for a juicy bite and you get a sweet-smelling whiff from the limes leaves mixed into the batter.
This duck salad is spicy and super flavorful, with dried chili, scallion, garlic, cilantro, and fried shallots.
Pad Ma Kua Yao Tao Jieow
The bottom portion of the menu has a lot of different dishes—all of which are excellent—that you should eat over rice. Whatever else you order, make sure to get the salty, wok-fried eggplant.
Chu Chee Hoi Shell
This curry defies the rules of logic. It’s creamy and smooth while being soupy thin, and in one spoonful, you can get hit with some heat from the long hot peppers swimming in the broth along with a wave of a cool coconut drizzle. Pour some of this warm bowl of scallops and sauce over a steamy hump of sweet jasmine rice, and you’ll want to hoard the rest of this dish for yourself.
From a pool of broth that kind of looks like milk chocolate, to the sugary sweetness in each bite, we would almost think this curry was a dessert—if it wasn’t for the tender slab of beef and potatoes in the middle of this dish. Tossing some onions and peanuts into the mix, it's a dish that’s earthy, tangy, cinnamony, and one of the milder curries on the menu.
This vanilla coconut panna cotta topped is topped with pineapple and tastes like a creamy pina colada without any alcohol.