I feel like soup is mostly underappreciated. It could be argued it’s a throw-in on many menus.
I scout a place before I’ll order the soup. It’s either done with care and integrity, or it’s not. (Big sad face.) The tragedy with that is a soup done right is healing and curative. Everyone needs good soup.
One of the best deals you can get — pound-for-pound in both ingredients and taste — is Malai Kitchen’s tom kha gai soup. The small bowl, which has large chunks of chicken lazing at the bottom, is a great lunch or light dinner and is about the price of a latte. Or less.
For a little history on how this soup found its way to this kitchen, we have to go to Laos. After college, Malai’s Chef Braden Wages backpacked and ate his way through Southeast Asia and bases a lot his dishes and recipes on things he discovered on that trip (and subsequent others). He landed in Burma and made it as far east as DaLat, Vietnam. Below is an excerpt from an interview a few years ago that gives you some insight into his drive to replicate the dishes he had on that trip:
"This woman was cooking in tin cans and plastic buckets, and she made this particular dish where she would saute scallops in the shells, and pull the top shell off, and serve it on the half shell with this mix of pistachio, cilantro, green onion and oil. It was so amazing. We ate maybe 10 plates the first night and kept going back. I've tried to recreate this one dish a million times and can't ever do it right. It never lives up to my expectations.”
However, prior to all that, Wages grew up in a small town in upstate New York and didn’t get a lot of culinary exposure.
“The first time I actually ever had tom kha gai was in college,” Wages says. “I’ll never forget trying it for the first time. It was the best thing I’d ever had up until that point.”
Later, while on that same backpacking trip where he fell in love with the scallop cart, he had a bowl of tom kha gai at a restaurant in Laos.
“It was amazing. I went back to the chef and asked him for the recipe,” Wages says. “ He told me that the most important ingredient is galangal. I base my recipe on what he told me then, and it hasn’t changed since.”
Tom kha gai is pretty ubiquitous. Just about every Thai restaurant serves it, but there’s something different in this bowl.
“Tom kha gai is obviously a classic,” Wages says. “So, of course we have to have it. But even with the classics, we want to do it the best possible way.”
Wages explains that fresh galangal carries the body and complexity.
“It’s very fibrous, so you steep it, like tea, in the broth. It’s infused,” Wages says.
They also make their own coconut milk from scratch at Malai, and that is the base of the soup: everything is intentional.
“There has to be the right balance of salty, sour and sweet. So we add fresh lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce just before it’s served. It can’t be added when we’re first making it. We always wait to add it at the last minute before we serve it because over time, those flavors will fade.”
This, obviously, is no ordinary bowl of tom kha gai.
Service at the bar is super fast, and the TVs are a good distraction. For starters, all diners are served sticky rice served with eggplant nam prik, which is their version of bread and butter. The bowl of tom kha gai is $6 plus tax. If your beverage of choice is water, served chi without ice there, then you’re out the door spending less than $10, assuming you’ll leave a tip.
There are five soups in all, which are either $6 or $7 for the smaller bowl and $9 or $10 for the larger bowl.
Malai Kitchen, 3699 McKinney Ave., #319 (Uptown). 214-599-7857.