Waldo Thai Place is a new kind of KC Thai place
Since August, friends and enemies in the service industry have been telling me the same thing: You gotta go to Waldo Thai Place. Their passion surprised me, as did the marks their fingernails left in my arms. I’ve enjoyed the Liberda family restaurants, and mourned the 2015 closing of their Westport Thai Place along with every other Midtowner. But the buzz this time around felt different.
That might have something to do with the new talent in the kitchen: executive chef Pam Liberda, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Teddy Liberda (Teddy previously operated the Westport Thai Place).
Waldo Thai Place is an altogether different kind of restaurant. It’s a little more upscale than the other places Thai, with an assured cocktail program (courtesy of Darrell Loo) and trendy date-night décor. It’s also committed to a chef-centered model that places the integrity of Pam’s northern Thai dishes above the whims of unfamiliar customers.
Know before you go: this isn’t Americanized Thai cuisine. The menu lists the Thai names of dishes and makes clear that the restaurant won’t entertain modifications or substitutions. You can’t sub chicken for beef in your Phad Kee Mow Nua, nor can you customize your spice level in the grand take-out tradition of one to five stars. But you also don’t have to be a fan of spicy food to enjoy a meal here.
If you’re in the mood for something mild, check your preconceptions of “curry” at the door and order the Gaeng Orm Nua E-Sarn. The regional stew from northeastern Thailand is brothy and delicate, with tender beef, bitter greens, and a heady fragrance from lemongrass and dill. The Tom Kha Goong, a Thai restaurant mainstay, is another mellow option. Pam’s version is sweet and subtle, with a fragrant, milky broth and tender lumps of shrimp.
The menu is extensive, with something for every palate. In addition to familiar rice and noodle dishes, diners can choose from a shifting assortment of colorful sautées and specials. But don’t overlook the salads and share plates, which contain some of Waldo Thai’s most unique dishes.
I adored the Nam Prik Orng, a humble-looking pork chili dip with a deep, complex flavor and a slow-building, lip-burning heat. Satellite garnishes — frill-cut carrot and cucumber slices, fresh pork rinds still firecracking on the plate — provided complementary ways to spoon up the silky, tomato-rich chili.
Also excellent: the Som Tum Thai, a salad composed of tender green ribbons of papaya in a tart-sweet herb dressing. The versatile Thai chili added a subtle heat, and roasted peanuts and pork skin lent the dish both salt and structure.
If you aren’t sure what to order, request a table on the south side of the restaurant and let your server be your guide. The southern dining room has a more traditional fine-dining ambience, with sleek black tablecloths, roomy booths and cool mood lighting. The service matches the environment — on both of my visits in the dining room, my dishes were delivered by service veteran James Chang, who has mastered the middle path between professionalism and personability.
Chang was skilled enough that I can forgive him one sin: trying to talk my table out of ordering the Pam’s Special. Caving in would have meant missing out on one of the restaurant’s best dishes. To Chang’s credit, Pam’s Special is perhaps the spiciest dish on the menu, and not everyone finds pleasure in pain. But there’s much more here to appreciate than raw heat. The dish combines browned, crisp-edged ground pork, tender rings of calamari, chubby pieces of charred Serrano peppers, and enough chopped Thai chilis to fill a cranberry bog.
At the risk of dragging a lofty meal down to my basement level: Pam’s Special is the Platonic ideal of drunk food. The heat inspires you to shovel in mouthfuls of soft jasmine rice to cool the burn; the balance of earthy/salty/spicy flavors keeps you coming back against your better judgment. By the time the fork scrapes the bottom of the plate, you’ll feel sober enough to attempt some light trigonometry — provided you don’t down the tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon that accompanies the dish like a wink.
The dinner menu feels overlarge, and a few weaker dishes pull focus from what Pam does best. I wanted to love the Khao Tod Nam Sod, an addictive crispy rice salad made here with cured sausage, cilantro and peanut. But Waldo Thai’s version was undercrunched and oversalted, burying the other flavors. The Laarb Moo — a cold salad of minced pork with onion, herbs, and chili — was a similarly blunt instrument of salt and sour.
The restaurant could take a cue from the bar menu, which is as compact as a neutron star. Bar manager Darrell Loo has developed one of the most coherent cocktail menus I’ve seen in recent memory. Many of Loo’s creations tie in unexpected ingredients from Pam’s dishes, such as fish sauce or soy. But those ingredients are never treated like novelties. The fish sauce provided a welcome savory edge to the Tamarind Thunder, an otherwise sweet and tiki-inflected drink the color of charred pineapple. I’m not a huge fan of cachaça, and yet I still enjoyed the Thaipirinha, which folded the spirit’s burnt sugar characteristics into a soft base of creamy durian and bright lime. But my favorite drink — and the best pick for gin-lovers — was the Shiso Tasty, a fine-boned cocktail that let the botanicals in the gin shine against a subtle backdrop of herbal shiso leaves and clean-lined yuzu.
The bar side of the restaurant is more casual, with plenty of high-top tables, concrete and gray corrugated vinyl. It’s also more crowded, especially on weekends, and service is less prompt and polished. On a recent Friday night trip, sightings of our absentee waitress were treated with the excitement of spotting a rare bird. Just getting the check was a twenty-minute ordeal, even though there were people hovering in the doorway waiting for a table to open up. The restaurant may have been shorthanded that night, but the service set a sour tone for what was a fairly expensive outing.
Still, it’s worth sitting in the bar if you go during happy hour, when whiskey is 25 percent off and you can try lower-cost versions of menu mainstays. It’s also a great chance to snag Loo’s renditions of classic cocktails for $6 to $8 (I liked the penicillin, which only improved with time).
Waldo Thai Place’s biggest challenge may be calibrating new diners to its price point. Most of the entrees have a fine-dining price tag, but not all of them live up to fine-dining expectations. The Gai Phad Sup Pa Rod ($21) underwhelmed despite its dramatic presentation — large pieces of tempura-breaded chicken piled high inside a hollowed-out pineapple and sprinkled with cashews and diced bell peppers. It makes for a great Instagram photo, but the chicken was bland, the breading gummy. And I enjoyed — but wasn’t wowed by — the Gaeng Kiew Whan Gai, a politely spicy and predictable green coconut curry. The morsels of Thai eggplant were tender, but the chicken breast was dry, making the $18 price tag harder to swallow.
At the same time, I gladly paid $25 for a similarly sized bowl of mussaman brisket curry. Each bite of the creamy coconut peanut curry was skillfully tensioned between salt and sweet and spice. The presentation was deceptively simple: chubby roasted peanut halves, tender red potatoes, generous morsels of brisket, and a velveteen gravy laced with just enough heat to power you through the rich bowl. When Pam delivered it, she announced that the brisket had been cooked for about seven hours. I believed her. This is the stick-to-your-ribs fare I want to slurp all winter; I’m willing to endure a late spring if it means I can order it one (two, twelve) more time(s).
The Poh Taek ($24) was near-perfect, teeming with jumbo shrimp, tender bay scallops, and fleshy calamari. It’s an undeniably beautiful dish, blushed with chili paste and slashed with Christmas colors from bell pepper, scallions, and bok choy. All it needed was a grace note — a little more heat, a more courageous aromatic — to complicate the rich seafood broth.
Does Waldo Thai live up to the hype? Right now, it depends on what you order. But with a little tuning and trimming, the menu could better highlight the dishes Liberda does best — dishes you aren’t likely to find anywhere else in town. Pam’s Special is a dish. It’s also a sentence.
Waldo Thai Place
8431 Wornall Road
Tuesday–Saturday 11 AM–11 PM
Sunday 11 AM–9 PM
Best bet: Sip a Shiso Tasty and share the Nam Prik Orng with your table. Heatseekers should order the Pam’s Special; everyone else should try the Mussaman Brisket Curry.