Something is happening in the Thai restaurant community. A kind of electrostatic sparkle that you can sense even when you can’t quite see it.
First, Glai Baan appears and demonstrates that Thai food can simmer and pop in ways the old, local Ameri-Thai standards could never touch. Then Lom Wong strides up and kicks down the front door, obliterating our Bangkok-centered tunnel vision and challenging Phoenix diners to expand their notion of what Thai cuisine is and can be.
It isn’t just a couple of great restaurants. Add an esoteric regional dish here, a rarely seen Thai ingredient there, and it starts to feel like restaurants are freshly emboldened to test the waters, feeding off a dining public that is suddenly curious — ravenous, even — to discover what they’ve been missing. The energy we’d lacked for so many decades is, at long last, present and humming.
I can’t say Wanwaan is how I thought it would manifest next. But as it turns out, excellent late-night Thai to-go was a niche just waiting to be filled.
Delivery that’s worthwhile
Thai delivery in Phoenix is a bizarre, bifurcated space.
The old Ameri-Thai stalwarts sling crab Rangoon and pad Thai until the early risers have bedded down for the night. Then, the list of purveyors takes a sharp turn for the weird when microtargeted ghost restaurants like Send Noods and Fire Ass Thai (I swear, I am not making these up) emerge from the shadows and offer a handful of popular dishes that might taste good if you’re deep in the throes of alcohol poisoning.
“There’s no one doing to-go that much,” explains Thunder Vance. “And if it’s 10 at night and I want some kind of Thai food, a lot of places are already shut down.”
If Thunder's name rings a bell, that’s because he was a fixture at both Glai Baan and Lom Wong, where the mind-bending Thai-twisted pina colada still bears his name. When he and his wife, Goong, decided to strike out on their own, they decided to offer something they felt was missing.
The Vances teamed up with old high school friends Nutt and Annie Promyanont to open Wanwaan, where the quartet serves a very personal style of Thai food rooted in the dishes they enjoyed growing up together in Thailand.
“Wanwaan means ‘the good old days,’” Goong explains. “When people say authentic, I mean, I don’t know what is authentic. We grew up eating spaghetti pad kee mao in Thailand. Is that Thai? This is our food.”
Engineered to travel
I’m a little sad the menu doesn’t offer a crack at that spaghetti pad kee mao, but the more traditional rice noodle version Wanwaan serves comes in hot. Sweetened with oyster sauce and heavy with pungent aromatics, this plate boasts the whistling clarity of pure chile and garlic, meticulously extracted into the oil that permeates the dish.
At its core, this is what sets Wanwaan apart. There are some curveballs on the menu, but mostly I’m just tickled to get Thai food on my doorstep that tastes like the person at the wok station actually gives a damn.
Ground chicken ka prao is a bright and sizzling stir fry flush with fish sauce and perfumed with basil. It's delicious, even if it's made with more typical Thai basil rather than ka prao, a distinctive variety of "holy basil" that's difficult to source in Phoenix. Pad ka na is similarly sharp, consisting of hunks of crisp, fatty pork belly stir-fried with verdant Chinese broccoli boasting a beautiful, fresh crunch.
But while the flavors of the two dishes sing, perhaps more impressive is the fried egg that caps them both. It's lacy and crisp at the edges, yet still sports a jammy, semi-liquid core. Even after spending half an hour sealed in a cardboard box, these are still better than most similar versions I’ve tasted around town.
“It’s still watery [when it’s packaged], but by the time it gets there, the noodle will soak up the sauce and it’ll be perfect,” Thunder explains.
My kao mun gai tod is an outlier. The deep-fried, marinated chicken cutlet dried out more than I would have liked. But the rice beneath almost made up for it, pushing into a risotto-like texture, rich with unctuous chicken gelatin and studded with huge chunks of ginger and garlic.
Better suited to the road, I think, is the kao mun gai tom, tender steamed chicken atop the same beautiful rice with a pair of sauces for dipping, or the kao mun gai yang, marinated and grilled chicken served with a perky nam jim jeaw — a spicy, tart sauce of tamarind, lime and herbs.
The funky esoterica
Wanwaan handles common recipes with uncommon finesse, but the menu gets more exciting when you delve into lesser-known dishes.
The Vances and Promyanonts hail from Chiang Mai, so it’s no surprise Wanwaan serves a nice sai ua, given the pork and lemongrass sausage’s northern Thai and Laotian heritage. It’s brisk and aromatic, heavily spiced with shallot, galangal and turmeric, served with nam prik noom, a condiment made of roasted fresh green chiles (less spicy than it sounds) seasoned and pounded out into a thick paste. The thick raw cabbage wedge? It isn’t for show. Tear off some crunchy leaves and chow down with the sausage.
Of the three chicken wing options offered, my favorite is the namesake gai tod Wanwaan, which is sticky and sweet with a bracing tamarind glaze. And the karee pup gai are delicate little crescent-shaped puff pastries stuffed with a lightly curried ground chicken filling. With either dish, however many you get, there’s never quite enough.
When I ask the crew to name their favorite dish on the menu, however, the vote is unanimous, and I’m inclined to agree. Wanwaan’s kuey teow tom yum haeng is the kind of noodle dish I’d crave at any hour of the day, but around midnight it’s completely irresistible. Tom yum isn’t just for soup. Here, the classic hot and sour seasoning adorns a pile of tender, skinny egg noodles topped with stir-fried meat, ground peanuts, crispy wontons and a tender hardboiled egg. It’s got a little pucker and a heavy aromatic hit, a lick of sugary sweetness and enough heat to light you up, particularly if you add the included side of dried chile powder, which I wholeheartedly endorse.
Wherever your spice tolerance lies, Wanwaan will work with you... usually.
The chile conundrum
When talking Thai food, spice level is kind of a third rail.
Throw together run-of-the-mill capsaicin junkies, folks who request zero spice in dishes that need at least some amount of chiles to taste right and faux experts who insist it isn’t real Thai if it doesn’t melt your face off (false) and all I can do is ask Thunder if it gets frustrating when people complain.
“Well, ‘cause it’s to-go, we don’t see anyone, so...” he says, trailing off.
Good point. The Wanwaan crew is a sociable bunch, but I guess not meeting your customers has its upsides.
That said, they’re making the effort. They offer some dishes on a mild/medium/spicy scale. And whenever appropriate to the dish, Wanwaan thoughtfully offers supplemental heat on the side, whether in the form of powdered chiles, Thai sriracha or chile-spiked fish sauce for you to apply as you please. That pad see ew is sweet and mellow if you leave it alone, and another experience entirely if you splash it with a bit of jalapeno-infused vinegar.
Occasionally, though, propriety trumps preference. With some dishes, you get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.
Meanwhile, the first time I tried Wanwaan’s tom yum soup was nearly my last.
It’s exactly what you expect — plump shrimp and mushrooms with stalks of lemongrass and thick slabs of galangal infusing its spicy sour broth. But when I cracked open the lid and took my first fateful sip, I was consumed by an intense rush of such exquisite, clarifying chile fire that I think I briefly left this mortal plane, returning only so I could drink a little more. I cried my way to the bottom of the one-quart deli container and then cursed the fact that I had none left.
Subsequent orders were neither so incendiary nor so transcendental. Whoever made that first batch is officially my favorite chef at Wanwaan. But it's a great soup however spicy, and it's probably for the best that my beloved firey first taste was a fringe batch. Killing off your clientele is bad for business.
New interest, new venues
Wanwaan might not have seen the light of day five or six years ago. It took both an evolution in the city's understanding of Thai food and a fresh wave of restaurant resources to make it happen.
Traditionally, a restaurant’s low-budget path to brick and mortar is the venerable food truck, but even the most dilapidated roach coach can cost a small fortune. The pandemic brought a surge of fully equipped ghost kitchens to the Valley, and now that the outsized demand for food delivery has abated, they’re finding a second life as incubators for aspiring restaurateurs. CloudKitchens’ Highland Food Hub is part of what made Wanwaan possible.
“It’s a great location in central Phoenix,” Goong says. “They make it so easy. All of the equipment is there, the permitting is done, the robot gets the food...”
The what do the what, now?
Not a joke, apparently. When the kitchen completes an order, they signal a robot that fetches it and shuttles it to a pickup cubby. Beats having to fix the leaky radiator on your food truck.
Takeout and delivery is a great niche for Wanwaan, but it’s only a start. The crew has their eyes on bigger things. Once every week or two, they close up shop to participate in some kind of event or pop-up, an opportunity both to stretch their wings and to introduce less familiar dishes to the public.
One recent evening in downtown Phoenix, I strolled up to Wanwaan’s stand at an event called Dusk Night Market and sauntered off with a plateful of juicy pork dumplings and a bowl brimming with khao soi — a rich and smoldering coconut curry noodle dish with pickled mustard greens and a whole, fall-apart chicken leg. I wish I could get that khao soi on the regular.
But that’s exactly why now is such an exciting time to be following Thai cuisine in Phoenix. The city’s tastes and interests have matured, and the folks who can make great food are realizing there’s a market for it. The Wanwaan crew saw an opening and said “Hey, I can do that!”
“There’s enough room for new people to bring in new business,” Goong says. “Right now, my friend’s building another Thai restaurant, and I’m so happy. I’m like, yeah, bring it, more. People need more of this."
With a little luck, somebody else is reading and thinking, “Hey, I can do that!” right now.
720 W. Highland Ave. (inside Highland Food Hub)
3 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Sunday
Small plates $6-$15; Noodles, curries and rice dishes $16-$18; Dessert $8.