Earlier this summer, a swarm of lucky friends and regular diners gathered at Waldo Thai Place for a private family-style dinner to celebrate the restaurant’s one-year anniversary. One traditional dish, made with shredded jackfruit and minced pork, encapsulated why Waldo Thai has attracted a steady following.
Guests won’t find the jackfruit dish on the restaurant’s menu. Not now, at least. Chef Pam Liberda, who grew up in mountainous Lampang, near Chiang Mai, prepared the dish specifically for the occasion. A bite-sized portion of the blended pork and jackfruit was spooned onto crunchy shrimp crackers and eaten as an appetizer. Each bite was fresh and intense, the product of labor-intensive preparation by a chef who knows how to properly balance flavors — a hallmark of Thai cuisine.
Liberda’s jackfruit dish represents regional homestyle cooking refined by a chef driven to excel and represent her native cuisine. Eating Liberda’s dish, along with yum woon sen and khao tod nam sod, reminded me of family meals and restaurants across Thailand. Liberda was surprised to learn at her private dinner that I was half-Thai. But until I can book a trip to visit family in central Thailand for a bite, Waldo Thai Place, in a plaza on busy Wornall Road, is now a Kansas City destination to experience a taste of home.
Chef duo Pam and Ted Liberda operate Waldo Thai. If you recognize the family name, it’s because Ted’s mother, Ann Liberda, opened the original Thai Place in Overland Park back in 1991. The family also operated eight locations throughout the metro, including a 20-year run in Westport. Building on home-cooking experiences alongside her mother and working as a chef at Cerner, Pam now helms the kitchen at Waldo Thai Place with support from her husband.
For years, Thai restaurants throughout Greater Kansas City have served greatest hits like pad Thai, pad grapow and tom yum. While common throughout Thailand — and, yes, some of them are featured at Waldo Thai — these mainstays hardly represent the depth and range of regional Thai cuisine. Diners are growing more adventurous and curious. Pam Liberda’s cooking is a showcase of more regional specialties and less-familiar fare.
For example, peek gai yud sai is a signature dish meant to be shared. A deboned chicken wing is packed with ground pork, bean thread noodles, shiitake and celery. The subtle flavor of yellow curry permeates each bite. Tender stuffing contrasts with crispy chicken skin.
Northern Thailand’s mountainous woodland terrain shapes its cuisine. Since there is limited access to fresh coastal seafood or inexpensive beef, pork dominates. For example, Waldo Thai’s gra dook moo tord — flash-fried marinated pork riblets — is served with sriracha as another sharable starter. Its pleasant chewiness and flavors of salt and umami whet the appetite.
Although Thai dishes may feature similar base ingredients, they’ll yield different sensory experiences. Khao tod nam sod is a rice salad made with cured and fried pork sausage, scallions, red onion, cilantro, peanuts and dried chili. The salad is often spooned onto leaf lettuce and eaten as a wrap. Crisp textures complement the mix of sausage, savory alliums, herbs, nuts and chili.
Miang kham, a one-bite wrap, features leaf lettuce topped with roasted peanuts, minced ginger, shallots, lime, Thai chili, dried shrimp and sauce. The combination of nuttiness with savory, salty, tart and sweet flavors ping-pong off one another. The snack epitomizes the emphasis on balance in Thai cuisine by marrying simple ingredients in harmony. Traditionally, miang kham uses wild betel leaf instead of readily available lettuce. The absence of this key ingredient is regrettable. It contributes a bitter peppery flavor that truly ties miang kham together.
Thinly sliced pork belly is the star of moo grob phad phet. Liberda uses grachai root, a fragrant rhizome also known as lesser ginger, and green peppercorns on the stem to build layers of flavor. Fresh bamboo shoots, basil, and sweet and spicy peppers add vibrance to fatty, flavor-filled pork belly and jasmine rice.
A staple in Thai households, yum woon sen combines bean thread noodles with ground pork, shrimp, chilies, chili shrimp paste, an array of vegetables and mint. Bright herbal, chili and savory notes pop with each mouthful. Phad kee mow nua delivers intense beef flavor from the flank steak paired with fresh flat noodles coated with sauce. Egg, onion, bell pepper, serrano, clove-like hints from Thai basil and gailan (Chinese broccoli) round out this rib-sticking dish.
The rich yellow curry sauce in kow soi nua is intentionally thick. The Northern-style beef curry coats egg noodles, scallions, shallots and cilantro. A nest of fried egg noodles on top adds crunch. Squeeze juice from lime wedges to add acidity and cut the curry’s richness. The dish, similar in body and creaminess to linguine with white clam sauce — or vice versa, depending on your worldview — is soothing comfort food.
Bar manager Darrell Loo (of Repeal 18th and Julep) has developed signature cocktails that pair well. Loo’s creations have roots in classic cocktails but use ingredients associated with various Asian cuisines. Spring Break in Chiang Mai dresses up Wheatly vodka with a splash of raspberry, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemon, sparkling wine and Kubler absinthe. Herbal-citrus notes are surprisingly subdued. That makes sense if imbibing drinks with well-seasoned Thai food.
Whether sitting on the bar side or in the dining room, Waldo Thai’s gray-black color scheme is an unobtrusive backdrop one might find in a modern French bistro. Colorful prints of Thailand’s king and queen and traditional figurines assert cultural identity with elegance.
The restaurant presents quality food and drink on par with upscale casual venues serving regional American or European-influenced cuisine. In turn, dining at Waldo Thai Place delivers a modern experience worth every dollar spent.
And that jackfruit dish? Pam Liberda is tweaking her recipe based on memories of eating the dish in Thailand. She called her mother and explained that she prepared the dish and according to her mother, most Thais buy it from a specialty food stand rather than make the dish from scratch. One day diners might find Liberda’s version on Waldo Thai Place’s menu and relish yet another taste from Northern Thailand.
GO: Waldo Thai Place, 8431 Wornall Road, Kansas City, Mo. 816-605-1188, waldothaiplace.com. 11 am-11 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.