Award-winning chef Chutatip Suntaranon utilizes an abundance of produce to create authentic, enchanting flavors.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Built on a love for cooking and amazing family recipes, Kalaya serves Southern Thai cuisine. The original restaurant opened in Bella Vista in April of 2019, but moved to its current Philadelphia location in late November 2022.
Chef and owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon previously owned a restaurant in Bangkok.
“I wanted to pay homage to my mother by bringing her recipes to Philadelphia with a restaurant that celebrates and highlights food from my childhood home,” she says. “The restaurant is named after her.”
In just a few years, Kalaya has received numerous accolades. The restaurant was a 2020 James Beard Award Nominee for Best New Restaurant, and Suntaranon brought home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2023 (her second time being nominated for the award). Kalaya was also named Esquire’s Best New Restaurant in America and selected as one of the nation’s best by Food & Wine magazine in 2020.
Kalaya’s space and menu reflect Suntaranon’s desire to bring elements of Thailand to Philadelphia. The restaurant’s 144-seat dining room is open, airy, light and boasts a tastefully done array of tropical plants and bamboo décor, combined with modern elements. During dinner service, Suntaranon often circulates through the dining room to chat with customers.
Produce is extremely important to Kalaya’s menu. “A number of our dishes wouldn’t be possible without quality produce, and we have quite a few vegan dishes on our menu,” says Suntaranon. “We may be meat and seafood-heavy on certain parts of our menu, but we have many vegetable options that balance out the menu and meals for our guests.”
The restaurant changes the menu often. “While we have a number of staples that never leave the menu, we do introduce and rotate several dishes every few months,” says Suntaranon. “Some of our staples include cabbage, Chinese broccoli, pickled mustard greens, and especially our Tom Yum soup, which includes lemongrass, mushrooms, shallots and herbs. We use Thai basil and Thai chiles on so many dishes. Produce is a huge driver for our menu.”
The produce-heavy menu relies on good quality and authentic ingredients. “We source local, and we source fresh,” says Suntaranon. “We make sure to find the freshest, best produce we can for our dishes and that the produce fits my mother’s recipes.”
The restaurant uses about half a truck per week of fresh fruits and vegetables. Suntaranon explains the specificity of the restaurant and her produce requirements means she can’t just source from anyone.
“While we source some seafood internationally, we work with local produce and ingredients as much as we can to support local businesses,” she says. “We work with local vendors because of the specific orientation of our cuisine.”
Kalaya sources heavily from FarmArt Produce in Folcroft, PA, and Giordano Garden Groceries in Philadelphia, in addition to a few other farms. “We source our mushrooms from urban farm Mycopolitan in Philadelphia, as well as Primorida Mushroom Farm of Lenhartsville, PA,” says Suntaranon.
Dinner begins with a variety of exotic, refreshing cocktails and mocktails. The Lum Yong blends gins, coconut, lemongrass, galangal root, lime and turmeric and is garnished with a banana leaf. The Lychee Negroni fuses yuzu, jackfruit, honey and orange with non-alcoholic gin and garnishes with a fresh orange peel.
To start the meal, the Shaw Muang flower-shaped chicken dumplings incorporate cucumber and Thai chile. The Jui Guay serves up steamed rice cups with shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and a spicy sweet soy sauce. The Moo Yaang Prik offers perfectly grilled Berkshire pork chops with tamarind, palm sugar and a coriander glaze.
Kalaya’s menu includes an ample list of mouth-watering curries, all infusing produce elements. The Gaeng Rawaang presents thin sliced beef shank in a dry green curry with galangal, lemongrass and long hot peppers, served with jasmine rice. The Gaeng Gai Khao Mun yellow curry chicken is served with coconut turmeric rice. Under Stir Fry, Pu Pad Pong Karee marries colossal crabmeat with chile oil, egg, Chinese celery and crab roe. Gai Pad Med Mamung combines chicken and cashews with bell pepper, scallion, onion and guajillo chiles.
Captivating entrées delight the palate. The Goong Phao whole grilled freshwater river prawns join with nam pla waan (Thai fruit dip), neem, fried shallots, garlic and peanuts. The Goong Ob Woonsen baked shrimp pair with glass noodles, Chinese celery, dark soy, ginger and peppercorn. The Sua Rong Hai grilled skirt steak boasts a nam jim jaew (Thai chile sauce) along with sticky rice and crudité.
Sides offer a host of produce options including: an addictive Moo Waan pork belly with palm sugar, dark soy, shallots and garlic; Kalum Tod Nam Pla cabbage with fish sauce and palm sugar; Pad Pak Kad Dong pickled mustard greens with garlic and egg; and Kana Pla Khem Chinese broccoli with garlic, Thai chile, soy and salted mackerel.
For dessert, Kalaya stages a trio of Nam Kaeng Sai, an unbelievable Thai shaved ice dessert of thin-shaved flavored ice drizzled with sauce and hiding an inner dessert surprise. The Thai Iced Tea ice showcases guava, condensed milk and jackfruit with a banana cream inside. The Coconut Ice features passion fruit and mango with a milk chocolate center. The Yuzu Lychee hides a lime leaf cheesecake with Thai basil and toasted rice graham cracker.
4 W. Palmer St., Philadelphia, PA
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday: 5-10 p.m., Friday – Saturday: 5-11 p.m.
Lunch: Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.