Thai food is definitely having a New York moment. While the punchy cuisine has been in-demand for a long time, the recent proliferation of destination Thai restaurants from serious chefs is a new phenomenon. Ugly Baby brings the heat—and lengthy lines—to Carroll Gardens; Ann Redding and Matt Danzer oversee the ever-popular Uncle Boons and Uncle Boons Sister; and soon-to-be Thai Diner is landing in Nolita. Enter Tom Naumsuwan: the darling chef at the helm of Lower East Side restaurant, Wayla, which opened last spring to immediate fanfare.
Naumsuwan was born and raised in Bangkok. His mother, a natural talent in the kitchen, made fresh-baked bread and homemade curry and sold it at local markets. The street markets of his home city are Naumsuwan’s main inspiration for his cooking at Wayla, which emphasizes top-quality ingredients and wholesomeness over breadth and novelty. “Often, when you go to Thai restaurants, the menu is like a Bible. There’s a whole section for curry, a whole section for rice,” Naumsuwan explains. He wanted to differentiate Wayla with a consolidated menu of simple, comforting fare. “A lot of times we see Thai food that’s very exotic or crazy spicy, which is fun and has its place,” he adds. In contrast, his food is accessible and even healthy. At times he pairs vegetables with certain proteins to ensure low-cholesterol in a dish. What’s most important, he maintains, is that his customers leave Wayla feeling “as if [their] mom [had] cooked you dinner.”
Wayla’s homestyle cuisine hails from Bangkok, but it doesn’t exclude dishes from other regions. Naumsuwan, who now resides in the Thai neighborhood of Queens, moved to New York in his 20s and spent time cooking at Spicy Shallot in Elmhurst, amongst other restaurants of varying cuisines, including Japanese. Bangkok is similar to New York in that it’s a major metropolis filled with people who’ve emigrated from all over the country, not to mention the globe. According to Naumsuwan, this diversity means that the city’s diners “basically get everything.” One of the most popular items on his menu is gai yang, a grilled chicken dish that originates from the northeastern region of Isan, but is now commonly found throughout all of Thailand and often served on the street. Another popular dish is the nam prik platter, which features three types of sauce made with Thai chilies and an array of market veggies, bibb lettuce, and chicharron for dipping. “Every household has a different [nam prik] recipe that gets passed down for generations,” says Naumsuwan. “It’s what you get when you walk into someone’s home.”
Naumsuwan is determined to keep things fresh. Now that Wayla has been open for five months, the chef is tapping into his market mindset, and taking advantage of the changing of the seasons to introduce new creations. For Off Menu Week, which runs from September 16th to the 22nd, he’s taking cues from Chiang Mai, a northern city that’s also well-known for its street cuisine. For starters, he’ll serve nam prik noom, this version made of chilies, garlic, shallots, and a plethora of herbs. Guests will also be privy to abb pla—fish sauteed with curry and baked in banana leaves—and kang hung ley—a pork belly curry stew. If these items fare well, they’re likely to stick around.
The chef travels home often, where he owns seven branches of Hotto Bun, a restaurant that specializes in Japanese-style bao. Perhaps his focus abroad is the reason he’s only now rising to prominence in New York; and his work here is far from done– this past summer, he opened Little Wayla. The daytime concept, which sits atop Wayla and translates to “little time,” allows the chef to offer his distinct brand of homestyle fare to even more guests, and at a lower price point. Every weekday, he cooks up six or seven rotating stir-frys, fresh curries, and grilled items, and serves them in compartmentalized lunch boxes. All of the dishes are inspired by the meals his mother made, in Bangkok for the market.