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Kalaya, the Italian Market spot that sings with the flavors of Southern Thailand, shined in the national spotlight last year. Food & Wine named the tiny BYOB one of the country’s best new restaurants, and Esquire gave it top honors, calling it No. 1 in the entire U.S.
What does a place lauded for its cuisine from across the globe do for Super Bowl Sunday? Because this is Philadelphia, it gets real with sandwiches. Big sandwiches.
Thanks to a sous chef working under chef-owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, Kalaya offered customers a special SB52 menu featuring 3-foot banh mi loaded with slow-braised pork belly. Staff determined there was only space to build 20 of the giant hoagies in the 9th and Christian dining room, and they sold out fast.
Their popularity was vindication for Jeff McConnell, who prefers to go by “ChefxJeff” and has been working at Kalaya since last summer, when he moved on from CookNSolo’s Abe Fisher.
“I saw everyone doing these really cool Super Bowl menus and thought Kalaya should have in on the fun,” Jeff told Billy Penn.
He texted his boss with the brainstorm late one night — and she got the vibe immediately. When he showed up at the shop the next morning, there was a giant hoagie roll waiting for him to experiment with. “Nok jumped on this,” he said.
After some testing, they settled on a recipe. Atop the yard-long Amoroso roll would go 4 lbs. of the restaurant’s moo hong pork. Inspired by the Thai street food stew but sourced from Esposito’s down the block, the fatty belly meat is coated in a sweet-spicy sauce made with star anise, cinnamon and white pepper.
To cut through the sticky moo hong glaze and add acidity, Jeff layered on shredded carrots, pickled jalapenos, lightly-pickled cucumbers, julienned white onions, tons of fresh cilantro (as it traditional for the Vietnamese- and some long hots.
The banh mi went for $85 a piece, and were sold whole as “family-sized,” i.e. a full meal for three people, or appetizers for a bigger household.
Along with the mammoth hoagies, the pop-up menu also sold out of that Super Bowl favorite, wings — in this case tossed in rice flour for extra crunchy exteriors and then coated with coconut curry sauce.
Jeff originally planned to make the wings with red curry, but the recipe didn’t work properly, he said. “Nok stepped in and bailed me out.”
He shouted out his other favorite Thai curry wings in the city: the ones made by Kurt Evans at Down North, the pizzeria-plus spot that has a mission to provide culinary career opportunities and employs formerly incarcerated people.
Kayala’s regular menu is available online, to order for pickup or delivery. Suntaranon and the team have been trying all kinds of pivots to get through the pandemic, the sous chef noted, and there are more on the way.
“Keep your eyes peeled, we’re doing a bunch of really cool collabs,” Jeff said. “It’s been a really hard time for the restaurant industry, and we all have to rely on each other.”