September 20, 2019, 8:37

Wayla Makes a Persuasive Case for Noodle-Wrapped Meatballs

Wayla Makes a Persuasive Case for Noodle-Wrapped Meatballs

In the cramped grid of Manhattan, any bit of outdoor space, especially in the warmer months, holds a special place in the hearts of air-starved city dwellers. For these deprived people, any sort of “garden” will do, even if it’s lined in cement, painted black, and deep in a valley of tenement buildings. Throw in some twinkle lights and it’s a vacation. Wayla, a new Thai restaurant tucked into a basement on the Lower East Side, has one of the neighborhood’s lovelier gardens, with large palm plants and candles, and, even better, it’s practically secret—hidden past the bar, through a narrow room of tables, all the way in the back.

Two must-order items are the Nam Prik (center), an elaborate tray of butter lettuce, baby carrots and cucumbers, okra, Thai apple eggplant, and chicharrones, served with three condiments, and the Moo Sarong (bottom), pork meatballs wrapped in a single long noodle and fried.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

Wayla also has another thing that New Yorkers love very much: a runaway-hit dish, involving both noodles and meatballs. Why the Moo Sarong isn’t already on every Thai menu in the city may have something to do with the fact that each meatball takes, according to a waitress on a recent visit, five minutes to assemble: a garlicky dollop of pork is wrapped, by hand, in a single long wheat noodle, then fried, to resemble a crispy little ball of string with a juicy center. The sweet chili dipping sauce on the side helps a serving of six meatballs, which theoretically took more than thirty minutes to prepare, disappear in one minute flat.

The Land of Smiles cocktail, a sort of Thai-chili-tamarind margarita, and the Sway Wayla, made with gin and butterfly-pea blossom.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

Wayla opened in late April; reservations are scarce (a tip: skip the online system and call a couple of days ahead), and the wait for that precious garden, which is first come, first served, can stretch beyond two hours. But the hospitality level is high, and the welcoming seafoam-tiled bar a fine, if cramped, place to wait while sipping a Land of Smiles cocktail, a sort of Thai-chili-tamarind margarita.

On a recent night, at a table in a dimly lit anteroom decorated like a sexy dungeon, a waitress delivered confident recommendations for ordering—don’t double up on proteins; share everything—and warnings about the shrimp, or Kua Kling Kung. The dish is super spicy, but you don’t notice at first—then the heat builds, and suddenly your mouth is on fire. It was an offer that could not be refused.

For Larb Pla Tod, the flesh is cut from a whole branzino, cubed, fried, tossed with mint, lime, and chilies, piled back onto the fish’s body, and showered with rice powder.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

Another must-order item, according to the waitress, was the Nam Prik, an elaborate tray of butter lettuce, baby carrots and cucumbers, okra, Thai apple eggplant, and chicharrones, served with three condiments: ground pork with tomato (like a zippy Italian ragù), spicy mushrooms (fruity and just a little hot, actually), and chopped shrimp with coconut milk and a touch of fish sauce (creamy and comforting)—an altogether au-courant combo of wellness and indulgence.

But the pièces de résistance were the proteins. Gai Tod Hat Yai, a juicy half chicken on the bone, was fried, sliced, and served with a small bowl of mint-garlic vinaigrette, referred to by the server as “crack sauce.” For Larb Pla Tod, the flesh was cut from a whole branzino, cubed, fried, tossed with mint, lime, and chilies, piled back onto the fish’s body, and showered with rice powder. Sen Chan Pad Lobster was essentially a sweet-sour pad Thai studded with chunks of tender lobster, like little gifts. And the heat on those shrimp in the Kua Kling Kung really did take a long time to build; once it did, the Thai iced tea with oat milk and bourbon was as essential as it was potent.

Wayla, tucked into a basement on the Lower East Side, has one of the neighborhood’s lovelier gardens.

Photograph by Zachary Zavislak for The New Yorker

Wayla’s chef, Tom Naumsuwan, who grew up in Bangkok, co-owns the restaurant with Erika Chou, the owner of Northern Tiger, a fast-casual Chinese counter in Brookfield Place. The food at Wayla doesn’t feel quite as highbrow or precise as that of its relative neighbor Uncle Boons, in Nolita, where sweetbreads and bone marrow make regular appearances, or as austere as some of the stalwarts in Queens, where there are bones in the fish and chili heat leads the way. But who in New York would pass up a meal of addictive plum-sauced chicken wings, fried rice laced with fresh lump crab, seared strip steak sizzling on a cast-iron pan, and jackfruit-coconut ice cream, all under the stars? (Dishes $8-$36.) ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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