—SLA brings Northern Thai cooking to Montclair, NJ and with it, a deeper understanding of the popular cuisine’s misconceptions.
I’ll be honest with you, Thai food never used to be my cuisine of choice. And so, the first time I decided to eat at SLA Thai Restaurant in Montclair, it was a shot in the dark. That was five years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Thai is a deeply misunderstood cuisine in the United States. When thinking of Thai fare, many Americans imagine Pad Thai, or maybe a green curry, but not much past that. I was certainly guilty of this same mindset. So, when Kamonthip Pattamasingchai, who simply goes by Meiji, opened SLA Thai in 2015, she decided to do anything other than what was expected of the average Thai restaurant in New Jersey. It was a risky move, but one that paid off better than anyone could have ever imagined.
To understand what SLA brings to the table, I took a closer look at Meiji’s life leading up to this point. Meiji was born and raised in a small town in the north of Thailand called Nan. At just seven years old, Meiji began cooking with her mother, who worked as a caterer for the local temple. This is where she began to master her craft of Northern Thai cuisine. Meiji never forgets what she is taught, and upon a deeper dive into how SLA came to be, this becomes abundantly clear. “I came to New York to sort of run away from my mom. She did catering, and I didn’t really want [to do] that. I wanted to be a fashion designer,” Meiji told me. “I applied to school, but I could not speak English. I didn’t get in. I needed to learn how to read and write first.”
Meiji found herself in a difficult situation—incredibly inspired, but with no way to convey it. So, she turned back to cooking. Meiji began working at a Thai restaurant on 10th Avenue in Manhattan. Starting as a dishwasher, Meiji insisted on offering a hand when the restaurant was in need of more prep-work. Her masterful knife-work piqued the chef’s interest. Not long after, they asked Meiji if she knew how to cook; “Of course I can cook,” she replied, and thus a career began to emerge. When Meiji felt well-versed in the kitchen, she came to Montclair to work front of house and build a better understanding of management—honing her abilities as a well-rounded restaurateur. That was a decade ago, and with SLA already in the midst of its fifth year and now operating from a recently upgraded location, it is incredibly apparent that the last thing Meiji does is waste time.
SLA’s fare is the culmination of the careers that helped to build it. Meiji is not alone in this operation. Her brother, Yanin, and her husband, Wanat, both share the role of chef along with Meiji; all three coming from the North of Thailand. Yanin spent years working in Manhattan for the universally admired chef, Joël Robuchon. Wanat attended The Institute of Culinary Education before starting his illustrious career—working with legends such as Daniel Boulud and even brushing shoulders with chefs who worked for the Thai Royal Family (also known as The Chakri Dynasty). While three individual stories like these may seem unlikely to coexist within one small space in northern New Jersey, it is anything but surprising when you experience SLA firsthand. All three coming from Northern Thailand help to shape what SLA’s cuisine is at its core, but their individual experiences combine to definitively set SLA apart from the others.
Her passion for design comes through in SLA’s decor. Whether talking about the food, or something as small as the layout of the coffee bar, Meiji’s eyes light up. Every ounce of her being is poured into this restaurant, and it shows. A colorful and bold aesthetic encompasses the walls of the dining room. Everything from the plates and silverware, to the dozens of books that decorate the main floor, create something that feels different than any dining room you have ever eaten in—all while remaining extremely welcoming and familiar. Meiji has an aptitude for bringing otherwise odd pieces of artwork together in a way that is robust and cohesive. This is difficult to do, being that one misplaced idea can throw off an entire space. It is no surprise at all that the carefully curated atmosphere of SLA is equally as fascinating as the food.
Dishes and flavors that are available at SLA are sometimes hard to come by in New Jersey, and it can oftentimes be difficult to make something so foreign appear enticing to the average diner in this area. “People around here get used to ‘Americanized’ Thai food. It is hard for them to separate between Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine. Many think that all Asian people cook the same food. I knew it was going to be hard from the beginning but we did it with a lot of passion and a lot of heart,” she explained.
A refreshing papaya salad is always part of the equation when eating at SLA. Thinly sliced young papaya is packed with both sour flavors and a desirable crunch. Crushed garlic cloves are left raw to introduce a pungent and spicy note to the dish. Oftentimes, raw garlic can be overpowering, but when combined with another intense flavor such as the young papaya, they exist in harmony to create what just might be the perfect side dish.
The braised short rib in Massaman curry is what turns heads, though. Meiji described this dish to me as “The Royal Family’s short ribs,” which were conjured up during Wanat’s time working with a previous chef for the Thai Royal Family. This new bit of information turned something I was already in love with into an obsession of the highest intensity. Cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cumin, coriander and peppercorns are roasted before being violently pounded into a smooth paste with the help of raw garlic, chili pepper, galangal (also known as “Thai ginger”), lemongrass, tamarind and palm sugar. This aromatic curry paste becomes the basis of the dish. This paste is stir-fried until aromatic before being combined with coconut milk to create the braising liquid for the short ribs. After six hours of cooking, the dish is finished with a seasoning of fish sauce, a common umami-forward ingredient found in Thai and other Southeast Asian cooking. Something as comforting and recognizable as braised short ribs are set apart by flavors that are anything but common to find in New Jersey.
The Gang Hung Ley, a braised pork belly dish, follows a similar route as the short ribs. Another curry paste is made with dried chili, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, garlic and shallot. After stir-frying for aroma, fresh ginger is added along with pork belly before being set aside for a five-hour braise. Once again, fish sauce and palm sugar are added as a seasoning to individualize this from any pork belly I’ve had in the past.
What makes the Gang Hung Ley so desirable is not just the complex flavor that is being compacted into one small bowl, but it is the bewildering simplicity that comes along with it. Rib bones are left on pieces of the pork belly, requiring you to use your hands as you gnaw away. This is pure indulgence. At that very moment, your only concern is to get everything you can out of this dish before it’s gone, not caring an iota of what you might look like in the process of doing it. A blessing in disguise, my close-minded view of what I thought comfort food was turned on its head. Meiji made sure I knew that this recipe was specific to Northern Thailand. It is a recipe that she has cherished since she learned how to cook it 30 years ago.
Perhaps what sticks out the most, in terms of both presentation and flavors, is the Nam Thok Pla Tod—a whole fried snapper dressed with Issan herbs and flavors. The entire fish is dried and lightly seasoned before being deep-fried to cook through. What happens next is a culinary phenomenon. The skin and bones of the fish help to protect the flesh from overcooking and otherwise drying out. However, simultaneously, the exposed skin releases all of its moisture when introduced to the hot oil, creating a tooth-shatteringly crisp exterior.
You are left with two layers: one being the salty and mind-numbingly crisp fish skin, and the other being the ever-so-delicately cooked flesh—still jammed with moisture. Meiji then places the fish atop a fresh salad, and the entire plate is dressed in a generous amount of mint, cilantro, shallot, and fish sauce. An easy entreé choice to share, or indulge in yourself, the Nam Thok Pla Tod is the epitome of what it means to eat at SLA.
It has been several years since SLA’s opening, and they’re still operating with the same passion and heart that Meiji began with. And if you’re wondering what the name SLA actually means, it’s an acronym standing for “Simple. Love. Authentic.” That moniker could not describe the experience Meiji and her team have created more accurately.
Main image by Arielle Figueredo