Thai chef Alex Boonphaya's round-the-world quest to expand Philly's tastes

Food writer Brian Freedman followed the owner of Circles on a culinary tour of Thailand—and saw what happened when he returned.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Feb. 12, 2014

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Scattered throughout nearly every bowl of papaya salad I tucked into in Thailand were the dried, translucent-pink baby shrimp that packed an umami punch and a shattering crunch far greater than their diminutive size might imply. They lent each bite a funky, almost earthy anchoring that set the other flavors up on a pedestal. They accomplished similar ends in so many dishes I loved in Thailand, and baskets of them, shining like garnets in the sun, adorned street stalls from Phuket to Chiang Rai, providing a thread of sorts that connected the disparate regional cuisines in a real and delicious way.

It’s a paradigm-shifting eating experience, and it changed the way I consider the importance of even seemingly minor components of a dish.

It’s also an experience that most Americans’ entire lives of eating—mine included—haven’t prepared us for.

The food Boonphaya serves at Circles in NoLibs has, since it opened in 2012, been more ingredient-driven than at its South Philly counterpart. As the chef explains it, the South Philly location has used “more commercial” ingredients to make the higher volume of business possible, whereas the Northern Liberties kitchen has relied on “locally sourced ingredients from small farms rather than large farms, and contributed to local and sustainable [practices]... The chicken was from an Amish farm in Indiana; our beef was from Painted Hills Farms; all of our vegetables were local, from our tri-state [area].”

That, of course, required slightly higher prices. And while the quality of the food has always justified it, Boonphaya has found that diners who’ve come to NoLibs already familiar with the Circles brand have sat down with expectations shaped by their South Philly experience. The result has been a restaurant whose food has been widely praised by critics, but that hasn’t quite attracted the audience that Boonphaya had hoped.

So the summer trip to Thailand, and the subsequent menu changes it inspired, were intended to shore up the NoLibs’ restaurant’s clientele and, perhaps, attract a different level of attention than it had to date.

The chef spent more than a month in Thailand. He’d already begun introducing some new dishes to the NoLibs menu in the weeks leading up to the trip; upon his return, he quickly began to implement more extensive changes: variations in herbs and spices, new Thai names for menu items, local specialities such as Southern Islam Massaman Curry and Northern Kow Soi Curry. It wasn’t just a new focus on regionally specific Thai food, but also an updating of the old, familiar classics with more authentic preparations.

Boonphaya was pumped. It was going to be just the jolt of electricity the restaurant needed.

But so far, the jolt hasn’t been the one he hoped for.

Over the course of the past few months, business has suffered. That hasn’t just meant the abstraction of numbers on a spreadsheet, of diminishing profits; some guests, seated at their tables and handed menus, simply stood back up and walked out without having tasted a single bite of the new food.

Guests, says Breslow, the Circles publicist, “came in wanting what they wanted... they showed up one day and it wasn’t here, and they were like, what the fuck?

It was a big blow to Boonphaya’s ego, the chef admits: “It really kind of smacked me really hard.”

But it’s a response that’s not terribly uncommon when a restaurant keeps its brand the same while making changes to the soul of the place, to the food and its underpinning philosophy.

“I just wanted something more creative here,” Boonphaya says—a more sophisticated sibling to the South Philly stalwart’s American Thai comfort food. Breslow adds: “I think it’s a typical situation where a chef expands into a new location and it becomes his new baby, he’s inspired, he nurtures it, he loves it, and he spends his days there turning his dreams into reality,” he said. “But the punch line is... the public comes in and scratches their heads and says, We don’t want this, it’s too much money and it’s not what we came here for.”

Boonphaya isn’t giving up. Philly’s initial response to his experiments notwithstanding, less familiar Thai cuisine is beginning to find footholds elsewhere in America. Restaurants like Kittichai and Pok Pok in New York and Khong River House and Oishi Thai in Miami are doing the important work of introducing a larger audience to the range of flavors and ingredients inherent to the full spectrum of Thai cuisine. So rather than pin his vision entirely on the idea of evolving Circles, Boonphaya has plans to open up a restaurant with a different name and a different brand identity over the next couple of years—one that will allow him to pursue his goal of crafting regional Thai food with a greater focus on both ingredient sourcing and creativity. He’s already begun the process of looking for a space.

In the meantime, he has a dinner at the James Beard House on the horizon (disclosure: I’ve been invited to help craft the wine selections), and he’ll be offering occasional regional specials at the Northern Liberties location. And while he’s conceded that the time and economics aren’t right to force wholesale change at Circles, there will still be seasonal menu changes, and the kind of unexpected riffs that have little to do with authentic Thai food but that touch on its ingredients nonetheless: plays on cheesesteaks, for example, or fried chicken.

Later this month, he’ll be heading back to Thailand for more research—and then, later in the year, to South Korea. His goal, he says, is to take a page from the Jean-Georges Vongerichten playbook and travel throughout Southeast Asia to broaden his vision.

The results of all that, however, will have to wait until his new place opens. For now, he’s regrouping, tweaking the menu to better suit what his clientele wants and finding his sense of satisfaction in the act of feeding guests and making them happy.

Brian Freedman’s full-length ebook Real Thai: It’s All About the Spoon goes on sale next week, documenting his complete culinary journey across Thailand one meal at a time. Check out next week’s PW food section for a fresh excerpt and a chance to win a free copy of the book.

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1. hungryman said... on Feb 12, 2014 at 03:29PM

“awesome feature!”

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2. ftw said... on Feb 14, 2014 at 01:03AM

“FYI the original Pok Pok is in Portland, OR but yes there is a nyc location now. Check out the Pok pok cookbook which goes into greater depth (and feels more genuine) on the subject of "real" Thai food.

Maybe Chef should drop his publicist/travel plans put his head down and cook? Too many Chefs cooking and looking for fame and not with heart. PS the whole article reeks of an advertisement for the authors e-book. Lame.”


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