During your meal at Wayla, you’ll probably be distracted by its coolness. You’ll be focused on who’s drinking which cocktail at the bar, and the imminent possibility of a swimwear photoshoot on the patio. It won’t be until later that night, when you find yourself texting your dinner partners things like “noodle-wrapped meatballs” that you realize the food here is incredible. Give it a few days and you’ll be at a party referencing the sen chan pad lobster to anyone who’s digested food before. And, after a week or so, when you’re absent-mindedly doodling Thai sausages at work, you’ll realize that Wayla is on the shortlist of the best Thai restaurants in the city.
In some ways, this restaurant is a manifestation of the neighborhood it’s in. It’s an attractive Lower East Side dungeon at the bottom of a steep staircase on Forsyth Street that you’ll have trouble finding no matter how many times you’ve been down it. The inside has two narrow dining rooms and a bar with a mirror so antique, you can barely see your reflection. Out back, there’s an idyllic patio full of rubber plants, oversized wire and wicker chairs, and outdoor rugs. If we were the sort of people who sat around with parasols, this is exactly where we’d want to twirl them. All of this will temporarily take your attention away from the plates of food in front of you, which tend to arrive quickly and all at once.
But later, certain dishes will resurface in your mind. Consider these Wayla’s contributions to the Billboard Hot 100. First, the pork meatballs wrapped in crispy noodles that look like crunchy yarn balls. They’re individually handwoven with knitting needles, and are the most impressive spherical appetizers you’ll ever eat. Another dish you’ll maniacally overanalyze later is the fried branzino. It comes presented as a whole fish, but the middle has already been cut and fried in perfect chunks. The result is like a Picasso fever dream, or, at the very least, a Cubist sculpture trying to impersonate a Picasso fever dream. These, the homemade Thai sausage, the lobster noodles, and the green beans with tofu will stick a landing in a way only a child who spent the summer at gymnastics camp knows how.
The food at Wayla is mostly excellent. But, like a lot of great things built and operated by humans, there are some misses. The daily curry is one. We love the actual curry (which is supposed to rotate, although it’s often a sweet, yellow vegetable base), but the vegetables in the curry are fairly flavorless. The Hat Yai fried chicken is another. It’s the chicken version of someone who married their boring high school sweetheart and now lives in the suburbs (only with some good green sauce to dip in). These small faults aside, the great stuff will be what you remember about this restaurant.
Even if (hypothetically) your friends primarily describe you as “quiet” and “super nice,” spend two minutes at Wayla and you’ll chameleon into a Lower East Side person who confidently hails cabs. In other words, Wayla is cool. But unlike many cool restaurants, this place has substance. It’s where you’ll find some of the best Thai food in NYC. You’ll just have to go home, change into your pajamas, and dream about noodle-wrapped meatballs to fully know it.
Each of these little crispy wrapped meatballs is handwoven with knitting needles. We’d like to sit, watch a movie, and eat a bucket of them like popcorn.
Meet Wayla’s homemade pork sausages. They crumble as you eat them, and you’ll want them for breakfast with eggs. Actually, come to Wayla during brunch on the weekends and make that happen.
There’s nothing more luxurious in this life than being presented with a whole fish. This excellent whole fried branzino comes with the middle pre-cut and fried into hunks with mint and shallots on top. So you still get the illusion of the whole fish, but without as much of the fork-work.
OK, fine - being presented with a lobster is more luxurious than being presented with a whole fish. At $36, this lobster noodle dish is the most expensive thing on Wayla’s menu, and it’s worth the money if you’re with a group. The rice noodles are saucy, sweet, and eggy. They come stuffed in the head of a lobster, with both lobster claws, and some peppers and chives.
Sometimes this shrimp is incredibly spicy. Sometimes it’s on the milder side. No matter what, your server will likely give you the obligatory “it’s spicy” warning when you order it. But even when it has a lot of heat, the shrimp tastes gingery and more complicated than just “hot.”
There’s something incredible about these wok-fried string beans that come with slightly-crispy tofu. When we inquired about what goes into them, they just said garlic, ginger, and chili sauce. Frankly, we need more answers.
A very good and very refreshing papaya salad. It’s sweet and sour at the same time, and has a ton of lime and some peanuts on top for crunch.
Despite saying “daily curry” on the menu, this is usually a yellow vegetable curry. We like the thin, coconut-based broth. But the vegetables themselves feel like they may have once lived in the freezer aisle.