by Alice Levitt
34 State St., Montpelier, no phone
Some restaurateurs try to make an impact with the size of their menus. Others are confident enough to know that it's the motion in the kitchen that counts.
With only two items on its menu, Wilaiwan's Kitchen is one of the latter. When I visited the tiny Montpelier storefront last week, the line snaked out the door. With only a few tables inside and out, several diners brought plastic containers or plates from home to take some food and get out of the way.
Wilaiwan's had made a name for itself over the years as a street cart, and it was clear that Montpelierites liked it just as much as a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, even if the two choices didn't include a vegetarian option. Perhaps the restaurant's abbreviated hours also contributed to the rush I encountered. Wilaiwan's is open only from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The feel of the small space on that hot day conjured a small café in Thailand. Co-owner Wilaiwan Phonjan-Azarian prepared a green papaya salad, called som tam, in a large mortar as a fan whirred behind her. It barely cut the humid heat.
But the crowd was justified: The gai yang was worth it. The pair of marinated chicken legs were ultra-crispy, though a little dry. The lime dressing on the crispy, refreshing som tam added flavor, too. However, a pair of sauces on the side were the intended pairings.
Dark, slightly sticky tamarind sauce was dotted with chile seeds and provided sweet heat. I preferred the pungent and tangy garlic sauce.
Lob moo, a salad of ground pork that some might know as larb, sizzled with the taste of fried basil leaves. Fresh mint added élan. Cilantro leaves and lime juice further brightened the flavor, but bird's-eye chiles added a shot of heat. In places the spice was merely warm and pleasant. Other bites made the cooling cucumbers on the side completely necessary.
Both dishes came with a side of Thai sticky rice, steamed (not boiled) in the bamboo receptacle pictured at right. Co-owner Tim Azarian, who was working the counter, explained that the relatively long-grain rice was meant to be used almost as a utensil.
My dining companion and I were instructed to ball up the rice and mash it into a glutinous mini pancake. Then, we used it to pick up the lob moo and soak up its basil-and-lime-flavored juices.
The uncommon treat added to the feeling that we weren't on State Street anymore. But when the meal was over, I was back in Montpelier — no flight necessary.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to email@example.com.