Pam Liberda wants you to know that there is more to Thai cuisine than pad thai.
In fact, in her hometown in the north of Thailand, the cuisine is substantially different than your standard takeout meal. With the opening last August of Waldo Thai Place at 8431 Wornall Road, Liberda finally has a platform to play educator and chef with each dish that comes out of her tiny kitchen.
At Waldo Thai Place, Pam and her husband Ted serve all the standard Thai dishes that were standbys at their previous restaurant in Westport, Thai Place, which closed in 2015. The Waldo restaurant’s menu features pad thai, soft spring rolls — and even Crab Rangoon.
But the Liberdas are also using their loyal regulars as test subjects, introducing them to more authentic dishes, and modifying them for American palates in an effort to slowly introduce Kansas City to the rest of Thai cuisine.
Thai cuisine is built on four essential flavors — salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Most dishes incorporate at least two of these flavors while others aim for three or all four. Pam’s winter menu offers dishes that are rich in texture and flavor. An added benefit? She can serve these dishes to her family without them asking for it to be made “the right way.”
I was lucky to experience Waldo Thai Place’s menu in the way that it was intended — with a group of friends with hearty appetites. With server James Chang guiding our journey, we tasted our way through the menu.
Instead of starting with spring rolls, we opted for the shareable Khoa Tod Nam Sod. At first glance, it would be easy to assume that this was another lettuce wrap variation, but lettuce is only the delivery method. The filling is a textural wonderland — crispy rice grains added a lovely crunch one might expect from the bottom of the paella pan. Flavored with cured pork sausage and dried chilis, with cilantro and red onion to brighten the profile, the filling is finished with whole peanuts for a hearty but not overwhelming start to the meal.
Another inventive choice was the Peek Gai Yud Sai. A generously sized chicken wing was deboned and filled with ground pork, bean thread noodles and shiitake mushroom, all flavored with a yellow curry. Sliced liked sushi and dipped in a sweet and sour cucumber relish, this hit three of the four goal flavors — sweet, salty and sour. The only problem was too many people and not enough wing.
Calamari might not spring to mind when one thinks of Thai cuisine, but the Pla Meuk Gra Ta was a gorgeous use of the protein. Tempura battered and fried squid was wok-tossed with garlic, matchsticks of ginger, scallions and serrano chilis. The ginger cut through the mix and offered both texture and spice against the perfectly soft calamari strips.
For entrees, Gai Tod Som Tum provides a flavorful take on fried chicken, of all things. Served lightly fried and spiced with a side of sticky rice, green papaya salad rich with peanuts and chilis, the chicken was moist and juicy. And the “JAEW” sauce mentioned on the menu? Proceed with caution. It packs a lot of heat.
If you’re looking for curry, don’t miss the Mussaman Brisket. If KC barbecue and Thai cuisine had a love child, this would be it. Mussaman refers to a coconut and peanut curry sauce, which in this case is chock-full of house roasted brisket, onions, potatoes, roasted peanuts and chilis. Served with fluffy jasmine rice, this is really hearty comfort food. It’s a bit on the heavy side, but the expert blend of sweet coconut milk and spicy curry is addictive.
On the flipside, the Ka-Nar Moo Grob takes a fatty protein — pork belly — and practically makes it levitate. The belly is fried to a perfect crunch on the outside but meltingly soft inside. No knives necessary. As a contrast, it’s paired with stir fried gai lan, or Chinese broccoli, in an oyster sauce. The crisp-tender gai lan lends a fresh flavor to a dish that could easily become heavy.
But what’s a Thai meal without noodles? I tried to order the Guay Tiew Phad, which features chicken, shrimp and rice noodles, but Chang gently suggested that I try the Phad Kee Mow Nua instead. Made with fresh flat rice noodles instead of dried, these “drunken noodles” featured thin strips of flank steak and a melange of fresh veggies. The noodles had great chew which played well with the tender steak and crisp vegetables.
What do you pair with such diverse flavors? Bar manager Darrell Loo offers plenty to choose from. While most Asian restaurants in town don’t excel in the beverage area, Loo’s cocktail menu would be right at home in a craft cocktail bar.
One of my favorite options was the Duran Durian, which incorporates the infamously odiferous fruit of the same name. (Hotels in Thailand impose fines on guests who eat them in their room.)
Loo makes a syrup of the durian and blends it with Wheatley vodka, Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur and fresh cream. The flavor of the fruit comes through, but without what some consider an off-putting scent. With the addition of the cream, the drink invokes the natural texture of the fruit, which resembles custard. It’s a great way to introduce non-Asians to what is probably Southeast Asia’s most recognizable fruit.
For sheer production value, the Razberry Beret takes the cake. The cocktail comes in a Thai basket with smoke flowing out of it thanks to dry ice. The drink blends Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey with galangal, lemongrass, lime, raspberry, basil, and egg white for a slightly sweet and frothy drink with a perfect balance of citrus.
If cocktails aren’t your style, a small but well chosen wine list is available, as are both Asian and craft beer options. There’s plenty to pair with the complex spices on the menu.
Waldo Thai Place is creating an opportunity for Kansas City diners to experience authentic Thai food in the comfort of our own city.
Pam says that she plans to offer fully authentic Thai dinners in the future. The special events will fully embrace the four flavors without holding anything back. She points to her loyal customers as her guideposts. She says that they trust her to introduce them to new dishes and she trusts them to tell her what might be too much for Western palates.
Of course, she does this with the intention of changing those palates — and she’s doing so, one new dish at a time.