Wawa Thai Food establishes a second base of operations even as its flagship location dishes out delicious curries
That stretch of MacArthur Boulevard which runs between the Laurel and Dimond Districts is notable for a defunct Donut Time sign, the 88-year-old Food Mill and Kasper’s Hot Dogs. With its two locations off of 35th Avenue and on Fruitvale, Farmer Joe’s is the parenthetical destination at either end of the busy street. Until Chef Wawa Maneewan opened her restaurant, the most reliable dinner you could count on nearby was Phnom Penh—hello, charbroiled pork chop and cold-curing, tangy chicken soup. After opening only six months ago, Wawa Thai Food already has a distinctive taste. Even a dish as ubiquitous as pad thai tastes fresh again in Chef Wawa’s hands.
While running her first business in the United States, Wawa—her nickname—has also begun the process of empire-building. She’s been planning the menu for Pla Daek, a second restaurant due to open in June on Piedmont Avenue. Wawa Thai Food concentrates on the flavors of Northern Thailand, where she grew up. Pla Daek will feature dishes from the Northeastern part of the country, which shares a permeable culinary border with Laos. “They use fermented fish as a main ingredient in the food,” Wawa says. The cooks there also use dill, galangal and lemongrass to work in concert with the strong taste of the fermented fish. She plans to make a papaya salad along with curries that will be “healthy, light and spicy.”
When Wawa arrived in the Bay Area a few years ago, she felt that the food served at some Thai restaurants wasn’t authentic. The cooks weren’t making everything from scratch in the way that her own parents had. In Thailand, where she worked in her family’s restaurant, her parents made dishes from what was available at local markets. “When you’re going to make one curry, there’s a long process to it,” she says. And curry is supposed to be thick, not watery. Here, “they just dumped everything in a pot and served it.” When customers come to her restaurant, they can tell her curry is different. For her base, Wawa fries the chili oil together with coconut milk, until the aroma is just right.
Wawa’s parents are chefs. Her father is from the South and her mother’s family hails from Northern Thailand. Both regions influence the recipes she makes in her kitchen. When she was eight years old, she began going to the market for the family restaurant. Wawa learned all about the herbs that are crucial elements of Thai cuisine. In the Bay Area, she’s been able to adjust and improvise when certain ingredients aren’t available. And she doesn’t shy away from making things spicy. The kick in the drunken noodle dish comes from her use of fresh bird’s eye chili.
At the start of the pandemic, Wawa was working in someone else’s restaurant. When public spaces closed down, she, like many chefs, began catering from home, and developed an Instagram following. As the orders continued to increase, she and her husband looked into renting an industrial kitchen, but it was prohibitively expensive. They lived near a shuttered restaurant on MacArthur and saw that it was about to go on the market.
She opened Wawa Thai Food on Nov. 8 last year. On the first day, they made $70. “My husband panicked and worried that we might fail,” Wawa says. But she was steadfast and determined. After that slow first day, people began showing up. She hadn’t expected to make any profit during the first year. Her measurement for success was, “If we can make money to pay the rent and my employees, I’ll be happy.”
The restaurant has exceeded her initial set of expectations. Now, when she talks about her plans for the future, they aren’t limited to Wawa Thai Food and Pla Daek. She is already sketching out plans for two additional restaurants. “When your life throws you an opportunity,” she says, “you have to decide if you’re going to grab it or walk away.”
Wawa Thai Food. Open Mon–Fri 11:30am to 2:30pm and 4–8:30pm; Sat–Sun noon to 3pm and 4–9pm. 3009 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. 510.479.3465. wawathaifood.com