.The Magic Touch: Pla Daek accomplishes something more than just serving delicious food

During the course of a single pandemic year, Chef Wawa Maneewan opened her first and second restaurants. When I interviewed her earlier this year, the chef had established Wawa Thai Food in Oakland’s Laurel District. At the same time, Maneewan was in the process of opening Pla Daek on Piedmont Avenue. Pla Daek, she said, would concentrate on “authentic Northern Thai Food,” with dishes like larb duck and a green jackfruit salad. All of my meals from Wawa Thai Food I took to go. We were in lockdown when its doors opened.

At the time, I lived a couple of blocks away. I used to call in my order of tom kha gai, mask up and then run back home. When I made it Pla Daek this fall, I was surprised by how different the atmosphere was. The two restaurants share the same chef, but Pla Daek accomplishes something more than just serving delicious food. Sometimes a restaurant gets the food right. Or the owners manage to hire the right decorator. Or the location is perfectly situated in an easily accessible neighborhood. Rarely does someone’s magic touch bring all of these qualities to life. Pla Daek is an enviable fusion of all of the above.

We arrived on a Friday night, minutes before the restaurant filled up and the waitlist started. Pla Daek is situated in the middle of Piedmont Avenue, not far from the movie theater and Fenton’s. Finding a place to park on a nearby side street is seldom a problem. Inside, the dining room was spacious. The décor included unobtrusive patterns on the wall, all part of the restaurant’s desire to soothe its diners. It’s a cliché to write that I felt transported, but I did. Pla Daek doesn’t serve the same cuisine as the Plantation Gardens Restaurant in Poipu, Kauai, but the feeling was similar. Pla Daek is sure to fire up the romantic imaginations of those wondering how to achieve mood lighting.

The menu at Pla Daek opens with familiar dishes under the heading, “Modern Thai.” One can find my favorite tom kha soup, along with yellow, green and red curries, and plenty of rice and noodle dishes. But Maneewan expanded her approach at Pla Daek. The middle section of the menu is titled “Esan Classics.” The chef told me that these Northern dishes often use fermented fish as a main ingredient in the food, although that strong flavor is tempered with fresh herbs such as dill, galangal and lemongrass.

Chef Maneewan also mentioned that she uses pak chee, the variety of coriander grown in Thailand. She said that, for her, Vietnamese coriander has the same scent as pak chee, but it lacks the same spicy, bitter taste. It’s an herb that, she insists, makes a dish like the pork salad more tasty. When she buys chilis here, they don’t taste like they do in Thailand. So the chef blends them with chilis that her mom sends her from home. Her mother, who is also a chef, also sends her butterfly pea flowers and shrimp paste.

At least four new Thai restaurants opened in Oakland in the past year—two of which Maneewan runs. In the heart of the Laurel, her Wawa Thai Food neighbor is Jo’s Modern Thai. It’s a more bustling, crowded space with a full bar, patio and bold variations on familiar dishes such as a larb burger and lobster pad thai. Pla Daek, though, is the clear winner when it comes to a date-night outing. A couple of small groups were seated, but the atmosphere subdued anyone’s raucous tendencies. Charm Thai Bistro, the sister restaurant to Anchalee Thai Cuisine in Berkeley, opened in the old KronnerBurger space. I have yet to try the charms of Anchalee and Chuck Natasiri’s second restaurant, but it bodes well for East Bay residents’ appetites. It seems that no matter what part of town we now find ourselves in, there’s a Thai restaurant to suit our moods.

Pla Daek, open Mon-Thurs, 11am to 2:30pm and 4–8:30pm; Fri-Sun 11am to 3pm and 4–9pm. 4133 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510.658.8491. pladaek.com

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