Despite menu items listed in both English and curly Thai script, Hanloh chef and creator Lalita Kaewsawang isn’t necessarily trying to make authentic Thai food. While her menu of Thai street food and home cooking pays homage to the flavors she fell in love with while growing up in a small city outside of Bangkok, a closer look reveals other experiences and influences layered like the flavors in a curry—attending high school in Alice Waters-ruled Berkeley, college at an East Coast liberal arts school, and post-grad kitchen stints in culinary meccas New Orleans and Chicago before returning to California to cook at Michelin-starred Manresa.
“It was never about being super authentic,” explains Kaewsawang. “It also has to taste good, to taste clean, while using what’s in season and local products as much as possible.” So whether or not it’s Thai, “If it’s good, it’s good.”
And wow, is it good. Whether her ever-changing menu offers eggrolls that crackle and shatter under tooth; yolk-colored Vietnamese crepes stuffed with sausage and decorated with shredded carrot, mint and cilantro; fried curried catfish with crispy basil and cucumber quick pickles; or a comforting bowl of Panang curry, her lineup is nearly always infallible.
Kaewsawang’s recipes evolve with the season and location, which means Hanloh’s menu, like most pop-ups, changes all the time. Thankfully, my favorite dish, Thai fried chicken or gai tod, seems to be a mainstay. Using the whole wing from shoulder to tip, Kaewsawang marinates them overnight in “an overwhelming amount of lemongrass. I feel like it needs quite a bit for the flavors to get through the skin,” she says. Plus cilantro, garlic, coriander, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Right before frying, she dredges the wing in a thin gluten-free rice flour batter so that the skin, rather than the batter, touches the oil and gets super crispy.
It’s hard to overstate how heavenly the bright lemongrass steam that fills your nostrils is as you crunch through crispy skin to juicy chicken, and the accompanying sauce made from fish sauce, tamarind and caramelized palm sugar is the perfect balance of tangy, sweet and sour. Some may wonder, is it Thai? To which I would retort, as I grab a second wing, who cares?
Hanloh’s next pop-up is at the monthly Night Market at the Food Lounge on Friday, Jan. 12 from 4-9 p.m. Pop-up calendar at hanloh.com.