Tucked into the shopping center where the Beach Road begins at milepost 2 in Kitty Hawk, Vilai Thai Kitchen has an intimate and special feeling, a little exotic even, with orchids lining the window sills and fresh flowers on each table. It’s a family owned and operated restaurant with Vilai Hammock and her son-in-law, Eric, commanding the woks, along with Yip, a friend from Thailand helping out in the kitchen occasionally. Vilai’s husband, Mel, her daughter, Malissa, and a friend named Linda welcome guests in and serve dish after dish of Thai classics, curries, noodles, and specials. With only three woks in the kitchen, the speed of service is impressive. In the moments it took me to tap a few notes into my phone, and to snicker at Mel cheerfully encouraging a table nearby to try the “spicy stuff” contained in a set of tiny blue and white pots he’d just delivered, Linda was already delivering plates of food I’d just ordered.
Aside from the happy, light-hearted atmosphere, I’m especially enamored by the kitchen and the woks turning out this gorgeous food. Picturing pans the size of a skillet, with a handle, I was surprised to find 3 huge, flying-saucer-shaped pots taking up two-thirds of the clean, compact kitchen. Vilai and Yip were masterfully stirring, tossing, and showering fresh ingredients into the steaming vessels, releasing a hypnotic aroma. The food here is authentic in the style of the food Vilai grew up eating in Thailand. Her mother cooked for their family of 9 kids, often enjoying fish they farmed themselves and homegrown vegetables. Vilai laughed telling me about her parents converting her own backyard here on the beach into a wild, abundant vegetable garden with eggplant, peppers, herbs, and everything in between.
Vilai has a Keffir lime tree in a pot at home that she plucks fresh limes from and harvests the leaves to stir into curries and soups at the restaurant. The leaves add a bright pop of flavor and citrusy notes that perfume her savory dishes. Having bought lemongrass from the grocery store myself but finding the taste a little muted for what should be an intense ingredient, I asked Vilai if she buys hers there, too. No, she grows it herself for use in her Tom Yum soup. You can taste the zing of lemongrass for sure but the thing I’ll be going back for is the way the underlying heat in the Tom Yum tingled on my lips, like a persistent, but gentle bee sting. It’s addictive, bright, and soothing; one of those things that makes you feel new from the inside out.
The soup is delicious on its own but also an excellent way to get your mind relaxed and your appetite in the right place to appreciate Vilai’s other offerings. For me, fried soft shell crabs were next. These little creatures, so dear to us Outer Bankers, were transformed into a crunchy, perfectly salty, fried situation - an absolute delight. The garlicky tempura batter puffed away from the crab, like a delicious second shell; the entire surface was a series of tiny, crackly bubbles ready to collapse under your teeth. Two sauces demanding to be swiped and sampled with your finger were drizzled over top. Vilai explained with a sly smile, “It’s yum yum sauce.” “There’s two sauces,” I said, “what’s the other one?” “Yum yum sauce,” again with a smile. Ok, I’ll respect the secrecy. The soft shell crabs sat perched on top of an herby, cooling seaweed salad, completing this plate with the most pleasing texture and contrast.
Vilai avoids using too much oil and salt in her cooking, coaxing enough flavor from ginger and garlic and introducing layers of seasoning with those fresh lime leaves and sharp, citrusy galangal in her curry. Here’s a little back-pocket cooking tip Vilai shared with me about flavor – when you’re making a curry, sauté the curry paste with salt and sugar for a minute before adding the coconut milk: a simple step that never occurred to me but allows for so much character and distinct pungency to come through in the food.
When I’m being smart and treating my body like I should, I agree with Vilai; none of us really need extra oil and tons of salt in our lives anyway. Vilai’s Seafood Fried Rice is welcome proof that less is more. As opposed to the heavy and rich fried rice most of us are used to, this one is light and fluffy with clean flavors, letting the crab, shrimp, and fresh veggies stand out. Vilai’s personal favorite from her menu, the Chicken with Basil, benefits from fresh Thai basil grown in her backyard and is lightly sauced. It’s rich and spicy without being cloying and is packed with crisp-tender bell peppers, zucchini, and onions and thinly sliced chicken, making for hearty forkfuls.
If you’ve dined at The Sanderling or The Lifesaving Station, where Vilai cheffed for 20 years prior to opening her restaurant 2010, and you ordered a dessert, you were witness to Vilai’s pastry artistry. The desserts at Vilai Thai Kitchen are not on the menu; they’re reserved instead for the specials board. I’m here to tell you, just stop at the Mango Sticky Rice. I’m sure all of the desserts are worth your time, really, but this Mango Sticky Rice is an absolute must. The warm rice is sweet and appropriately sticky, with a tiny hit of salt that gets you right along the edges of your tongue. Two ripe and juicy mango cheeks, skillfully carved into the shape of a leaf and brushed lightly with sweet coconut milk, are draped over top. It’s lovely and a completely satisfying end to a meal at Vilai Thai Kitchen.
Vilai describes her food as delicious and simple, although it tastes beautifully complex to me. It’s clear her years of experience and finely tuned instincts have everything to do with those results. Authentically divine and warming from the inside out, Vilai Thai Kitchen is truly among the best of the best on the beach.