Last week, I received an email through the blog from a man named Josh Haynes. He wanted to let me know that he would be organizing a Thai pop-up dinner as a prelude to a Thai restaurant he hopes to open. As you know from our recent posts about Masaman Thai and Blue Pacific, we love Thai food, so this would have been hard to pass up. Mr Foodie was tied up with Design Week Birmingham activities, but I decided to buy myself a ticket and bring two friends with me to help assess the situation.
An authentic Thai dining experience in a modest Highland Park apartment (Alloy Thai)
As is the usual for pop-up dinners, we were given an address the morning of the event and told to arrive at 7pm. We parked and walked a ways until we spotted the address, nearly obscured by the thick foliage. After walking up several flights of stairs, we came to the end of a hallway and knocked on a door.
We were greeted by a tall, thin gentleman with dark hair and a welcoming presence. I skipped the hello and went straight for “I assume we are in the right place?” He said yes, and opened the door. This is what we saw.
Seating low to the ground:
A shrine to Buddha:
I’ve traveled some in Southeast Asia, but have never been to Thailand. I have to imagine this is what a Thai house might look or feel like.
We could hear the quiet hum in the kitchen and smell the amazing mixture of curries and spices as we took our seats.
While we waited for the rest of the diners to arrive, the man who greeted us, who would also be our server, took our drink orders (they had a wine, beer, or cocktail pairing) and brought us our appetizer course:
This is mangkon kap kaew, or “dragon with a jewel.” It was so beautiful we had to take a close-up:
Petals From the Past satsumas stuffed with sweet/savory pork mince, chile, and cilantro. Fairly spicy from the chile, slightly crunchy from peanuts, shallots, and pickled radish mixed in with the pork, and of course, juicy from the satsuma, all together in one amazing bite. We looked at each other and nodded in unspoken agreement-what we were about to experience was something extraordinary.
We were also quietly speculating on the origin of this food and the owner of this apartment. As one of my friends put it, he was expecting an elderly Thai person to emerge at any moment from the kitchen.
A few minutes later, once everyone had arrived, a man appeared from the kitchen. He introduced himself as the chef, and began to explain how the meal would be structured.
This was no elderly Thai person. This was Josh Haynes, a young, redheaded, red-bearded man from right here in Birmingham, Alabama. When I received the email, I had jumped to the erroneous conclusion that Josh Haynes is the chef’s PR person. Not the case. Josh Haynes is the chef.
Josh explained that in Thailand, you are traditionally served a plate of khaaw suay, or rice (he uses the traditional Royal Umbrella red label brand), on which you place bites of all of your courses. He told us that he would explain each of the courses in detail as they arrived. He also noted that all of the produce, unless otherwise noted, is grown in his mom’s backyard in Eastwood, or on Fall Line Hills farm in Morgan Springs, Alabama. Fall Line Hills is owned by the cousin of the co-owner of Shindig’s catering. They’ve been letting Josh grow his veggies at their farm just to help out an aspiring young chef, and in exchange for Josh harvesting Shindings’ stuff from time to time. That’s true Southern hospitality.
The first course was served immediately. Naam phrik thua phat, or stir-fried peanut chile relish, along with a garnish plate: sweet pork, Jones Valley watermelon radish, bitter eggplant, chaplu leaf (slightly bitter and firm), tomato, coconut-boiled cabbage, and mint. We were encouraged to taste each vegetable by taking a bite of it along with the chile relish and rice. The chile relish was unbelievable. I’ve been trying for two days to come up with a way to describe it. Extremely complex, very spicy and slightly sweet, thick but with lots of body to it. As he said it would, every bite of the relish tasted different depending on the vegetable with which it was paired. And each vegetable (aside from the tomato, which was fresh and delicious) was a new experience in itself. The coconut boiled cabbage was a creamy, sweet contrast to the bitter, hard, crunchy eggplant and the peppery chaplu leaf.
As he made the rounds to ask if we had any questions, I stopped him. I had to hear his story. “Where did you learn to make Thai food like this?” I asked.
Josh explained that growing up in Birmingham and having a mom who wasn’t a great cook (sorry Josh’s mom if you’re reading this…), he had to learn how to cook at an early age. He also loved all things Asian, and eventually the two interests came together. While in college at UAB, he started working at Sakura in Southside, famous for their midnight sushi. He soon graduated to fine dining and eventually worked in the kitchen at Hot and Hot. During this time, he decided that he wanted to travel outside of his home town and studied in Thailand. While in Thailand, he learned to speak Thai and cook in a very traditional style — as he put it, like older Thai people would eat — by observing Thai home cooks. His dream has been to bring this style of cooking back to the ‘Ham.
I was also curious about his farm-why the farm? He explained that the soil in Alabama makes it easy to grow all of these Thai vegetables and herbs, but many of them are impossible to buy locally. So he created his own supply chain. He travels to the farm regularly to care for the produce and plant more seeds. This is about as farm to table as it gets-and in this case, the farmer is also your chef. This also ensures that every dish is totally unique, unlike anything you’ve ever had before (outside of Thailand).
Back to the food for at least a minute before we get back to Josh.
Next up, yam makheua yaaw, grilled long eggplant salad, Gulf hoppers (shrimp), New Orleans dried shrimp fluff, nasturtium, mint, egg, chile/garlic/lime dressing, eggplant from Snow’s Bend Farm (thanks to the Urban Food Project run by REV Birmingham). The shrimp flavor combined with the dressing made this a pungent dish. The slightly soft boiled egg, when eaten in a bite together with the shrimp and the eggplant, balanced the strong flavors and added creaminess. Incredible and unlike anything I’ve eaten before.
The nasturtium are so beautiful, this one is like a work of fine art.
Kaeng daeng nok phirap, red curry of dove. Yes, dove, like these doves.
Mac & Chad’s Selma wild dove breast, Zandile Moyo’s young ginger, horaphaa basil, kaffir lime, coconut cream, handmade curry paste. Slightly spicy, slightly sweet, very light and complex red curry. Not overly creamy. Different than red curries I’ve had before, in a very good way. The dove was a similar consistency to beef, and added texture to the curry. Outstanding.
It would be hard to come up with a favorite out of all of these dishes, but if I had to, this next dish would be it. Tom kathi fak thong, pumpkin boiled in coconut milk. Rai kaw tok pumpkin, white pepper, roselle hibiscus leaves, Thai lemon basil. This soup was decadent-creamy and rich, with large pieces of pumpkin with that uniquely wonderful pumpkin texture. I’m a sucker for pumpkin. But what made this truly out of this world was the way the tartness of the hibiscus leaves cut the richness of the broth and pumpkin. With an occasional taste of bold basil, this was just perfect.
Pet phat kaphraaw krop, duck stir-fried with crisp holy basil. Red Pearl’s Chinese duck, roasted chile jam, long beans, green and purple holy basil. The duck was so smoky, it tasted almost like bacon. The jam was sweet and spicy, and the beans were a nice, lighter complement to the meat.
And finally, dessert. Writing this post is making me crave the whole meal, this dish especially. At-tim bay toey, pandan ice cream made from pandan leaves from Josh’s pandan tree. Homemade ice cream with fresh pandan over coconut sticky rice, topped with Peanut Depot roasted peanuts. Sweet over sweet, with the savory roasted flavor on top, this was a fantastic way to end the meal.
I don’t believe in reincarnation, but if I did, I would say that Josh was a Thai home cook in his past life. It’s like within this red-haired southerner, there’s an 80-year-old Thai chef making a break for it. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anything quite like it.
This is one of the things I love most about Birmingham. In any other city, you might (if you were very lucky) find someone like Josh and get to experience his incredible creativity, and the earnestness and genuine caring with which he creates his Thai dining experience. You might, if you were lucky, sift through a lot of pretenders to find the “Josh.” But as an everyday run-of-the-mill diner, you wouldn’t get to know them, or their story. I always say that in Manhattan, we had 4 great sushi places within a 2-block radius. But I never knew my sushi chef, or even if the chef was the same from night to night or week to week. Here in Birmingham, food visionaries like Josh provide ordinary foodies like us not only an outstanding culinary experience, but a glimpse into their creative vision.
Halfway through the night, Josh summed up this point better than I ever could. Whether he was referring to crazy foodies like us or chefs I’ll never know, but his wise words ring true either way: “I’d rather be a weirdo in Birmingham than anywhere else.” Amen to that.
Josh is thankfully considering doing these pop-up dinners on a fairly regular basis. His operation is branded as “Alloy Thai.” As far as I understand, the best way to stay up to date on their upcoming events is to like their Facebook page (that’s what I did). You can also email Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out alloythai.com. Mr Foodie and I are planning on going to as many of these as we can get into. See you there!
And even more exciting, as I mentioned earlier, Josh is planning on opening a restaurant. Although Birmingham is certainly moving up in the world when it comes to Thai food thanks to Masaman and Blue Pacific, Alloy Thai is in a very different category altogether. Alloy Thai is to Blue Pacific as Highlands or Cafe DuPont is to Nikki’s West. I almost feel like that comparison doesn’t quite do Alloy Thai justice (sorry Frank and Chris, I do love you both). All are great, all have a role to play in our city’s rapidly expanding food scene. But Alloy Thai takes it way, way beyond what we have seen so far and into the farm-to-table, fine dining realm.
Special thanks to Josh for emailing me all of the proper food names and descriptions so quickly (I was in too much of a food coma that night to take notes), and to my wonderful friends Leighton and Jo for sharing the meal with me.