Not even the coronavirus pandemic could stop Wayla chef Tom Naumsuwan and his team from feeding New Yorkers for long.
Naumsuwan and co-owner Erika Chou opened the Lower East Side restaurant in the spring of 2019, with the goal of introducing locals to the Thai homestyle cooking he grew up with in Bangkok.
At Wayla, diners could find dishes like gai yang, a popular street food snack of grilled chicken, or nam prik, a platter of multiple sauces, chiles, vegetables, herbs, and fried pork skins. And then, of course, there were the critically acclaimed moo sarong, laboriously engineered crispy noodle-wrapped pork meatballs that are hard to find anywhere else in the city.
After a temporary closure in March, Wayla reopened in mid-April for takeout and delivery, but it wasn’t easy.
“The pandemic definitely hit us hard,” Naumsuwan said. “We’re in survival mode, but we are doing our best to keep the momentum and to be a part of the community in the future to come.”
Despite those challenges, in April, Wayla also debuted affordable, pay-what-you-can meals, called Lunchboxes 4 Neighbors, with the option to let diners pay it forward with donated meals. Those lunch specials are still available, and Naumsuwan said he will continue offering them for as long as the community needs them to.
“It’s our way of giving back and to underline that we are not just a restaurant in the neighborhood, but a family that is a part of the neighborhood. We survive because of our community so, although we struggle, we want to play an active role in contributing affordable eating options for those impacted financially by the pandemic, many who were our regulars in the past.”
Understanding that Wayla is more than just a restaurant, but a part of its community is what continues to drive Naumsuwan and his team, especially now that New York restaurants are slowly starting to reopen for outdoor dining once more.
Wayla reopened for outdoor dining in late June, utilizing its lush garden space. It’s also still doing a healthy takeout business thanks to Little Wayla, its upstairs weekday lunch counter.
Day-to-day, Naumsuwan spends most of his time doing, in his words, a lot of cooking, disinfecting, adapting and learning. “We can’t let our guard down, and we want to make sure that our staff and customers are all safe,” he said.
And he’s still optimistic about Wayla’s future, and the future of restaurants. Plans to expand Wayla to a second location in Florida have been paused for now but, he added, “We still have a goal to expand diners’ ideas and awareness of Thai cuisine in the future.”
“If anything,” he said, “we are coming out of COVID-19 more appreciative of the little things in life that remind us of ‘normal life’ again, such as dining out, being with friends and family, and being able to enjoy the scene and vibe in the city.”
And Naumsuwan hopes to see more diners stop by Wayla in the coming months, whether it’s to dine in the garden or to pick up their favorite dishes.
“Your decision to come back means a lot to us,” Naumsuwan said. “The pandemic has been tough on us, not only financially, but personally as well.” But, he added, “Seeing our customers come back and still love our food and drinks as well as having a happy time in our venue is such a big and meaningful encouragement.”
This week (July 6-13), the special at Wayla is as follows:
Comfort Food by Wayla ($60, serves two)
Goong Yang Salad (grilled jumbo shrimps, cucumber, tomato, mixed greens with a minty lime dressing); Kang Massaman Nua (slow-cooked brisket in massaman curry with potato, coconut cream and homemade pan-fried roti); and fresh mango, sticky rice and coconut cream for dessert.