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Kai Yang: Authentic Thai Cuisine in the Heart of Montclair

by Yiwei Gu
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Sheree Sarabhaya, the gregarious owner of the Montclair restaurant Kai Yang, says she asks her son for ideas these days. The mother-son duo are mainstays of the local restaurant scene. Sheree’s son, Luck Sarabhayavanija, owns the popular restaurant Ani Ramen, which started in Montclair and has since opened multiple locations across the state. Sheree herself, before Kai Yang, had run Spice II in Montclair and Boon Thai Kitchen in Livingston, both well-loved neighborhood establishments. Committed as ever to serving good Thai food, she is nevertheless open to new ideas, including those from her son. Read on to learn more about Kai Yang, a go-to eatery in Montclair.

“To Honor Grandma”

kai yang sheree

{Photo credit: @kaiyangnj}

The Ivy at Chatham

In fact, Kai Yang itself was Luck’s idea. Two years ago, when Sheree was on the point of retiring, Luck suggested she continue. Memories were still fresh of grandma cooking exquisite dishes on Sundays. So Luck implored his mother to open a new restaurant to “honor grandma and her recipes”. A favorite one is a flavorful Thai rotisserie chicken called “kai yang”, which later became the restaurant’s namesake.

The restaurant, a vibrantly decorated spot on the buzzy Bloomfield Avenue, cooks everyday Thai food that can also be found on the streets of Bangkok. “We wanted to make something really authentic,” Sheree said. “Authenticity”, nevertheless, can be a slippery concept. 

Read More: Ani Ramen: The OG Sip, Slurp, Repeat Ramen Spot in Montclair

There are timeless classics, such as tom yum soup and papaya salad, but tastes also evolve over time. Sheree says she tries to keep herself well in the know of today’s food trends in big cities in Thailand, which often turn into ideas for special dishes

Take the example of pak mor nam, an exquisite steamed dumpling with silky, paper-thin rice wraps. “The preparation takes a lot of patience,” Sheree said. “But when it’s done, it’s like art!”

The Menu

kai yang

{Photo credit: @kaiyangnj}

Of the regular menu items, kai yang, or rotisserie chicken, definitely lives up to its fame. The meat is infused with the fragrance of a zesty rub made of lemongrass, palm sugar, and a roster of other herbs. It is good on its own, and great with sticky rice, papaya salad, and a tangy, lemongrass-infused dipping sauce, the same way it is served on street stalls in Bangkok. 

Kai Yang

{Photo credit: @kaiyangnj}

Another popular dish is the massaman curry, made with sturdy vegetables cooked in a velvety coconut-based gravy. The veggies provide a pleasant contrast of textures, and the gravy itself is creamy but not heavy. 

Kai Yang

{Photo credit: @kaiyangnj}

Other menu items include a variety of dumplings from shrimp to chicken as well as classics like pad Thai, spring rolls, and flavorful soups.

The Community

kai yang

{Photo credit: @kaiyangnj}

Sheree, who half-jokingly calls herself “old-fashioned”, says the restaurant industry has changed a lot since the early days of her career. Restaurants now reach customers more easily through social media, but she still values first-name-basis connections with customers. “I eat at home what I cook at the restaurant. Many customers become families,” she said of her long career running restaurants in North Jersey. The connections are also strongly felt during the pandemic. “Local customers really supported us.”

See More: Cocina Candela: Authentic Puerto Rican Food in Montclair

She also values solidarity in the local business community. “Montclair is great. Everyone knows each other. We help each other.” She is still very touched by how neighboring stores and restaurants all actively shared resources and supported one another’s businesses during the depth of the lockdown. “It’s like exchanging meals!”

kai yang

The pandemic may have changed the restaurant scene forever. Sheree is still taking everything in and learning with an open mind. The veteran restauranter sometimes finds her son’s ideas surprising, if not shocking. But in the end, she almost always ends up seeing the merits of his idea. She has embraced social media, trained a good team, upgraded the management system, and even began to appreciate “finding the time for [myself] and recharge”.  Circumstances change, but she remains dedicated to the food business through and through.

Stay up to date with Kai Yang’s happenings via Instagram.

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