Nok Suntaranon’s year-old Thai destination Kalaya quickly turned from a tiny, packed South Philly BYOB racking up accolades to a takeout and delivery business during the pandemic. The chef and her crew have stayed consistently busy, cooking meals for healthcare workers and out-of-work restaurant employees, adding outdoor dining, and popping up with dinners at other venues. Now, Suntaranon heads to rooftop restaurant Irwin’s at the Bok building for a three-week dinner series. When that’s concluded, she’ll get back to work on her upcoming food shop, located just down the street from Kalaya in the Italian Market.
Asked how she has time to fit everything in, Suntaranon says with a laugh that she doesn’t.
“It’s going to be very long days for three weeks. But I need to make the time, because I have people on my payroll,” she says on day one of the pop-up. “If I don’t work hard enough, then we can’t keep the doors open and these people will lose their jobs. This is the least I can do for my staff, who are amazing.”
The $60 tasting menu Suntaranon and her team are offering at Irwin’s (on the other side of the roof from the buzzy Bok Bar) is a mix of Kalaya’s signature dishes, like those oft-Instagrammed blue tapioca dumplings and the laab hed yang jae (a mushroom and toasted rice salad), and new items, like beef tartare with quail eggs. Those craving the chef’s khao yum or the giant prawn soup, neither of which are currently on the menu at Kalaya, can find both at Irwin’s.
Reservations are required for the pop-up, running Wednesdays to Saturdays with two seatings a night through September 19. “This is fine-dining,” she says. “It’s an authentic Thai dining experience.”
Suntaranon has no plans to resume indoor dining when that’s allowed in Philly starting September 8 — “It’s a risk for my staff and for myself, and my restaurant is too small,” she says — but when the Bok residency is over she’ll turn her attention to finalizing Kalaya Thai Market, a Ninth Street storefront offering prepared foods and private cooking classes. It’s sandwiched between Claudio, the Italian grocery store in business since the 1950s, and Di Bruno Bros.’s new bottle shop.
“We’ve been working on the market since the beginning of the year, but doing it slowly,” she says. “We didn’t reveal it to anybody, but we’ve been working on it all this time.”
With that, Suntaranon has to get back to prep at Irwin’s: “I have 20 pounds of sticky rice in the oven over there.”