Asian Cool

MangoMoon dresses up Thai for a night on the town.

The second level beckons with its communal table, well-stocked bar and ample light. THE SCENE: Located along the not-so-beaten path leading out of Manayunk, MangoMoon spruces up a Main Street block known more for home décor than hot dining. Through its bilevel glass façade, passersby can catch tantalizing glimpses of Asian tapas, swanky elixirs, and plenty of activity in the open kitchen.

Owned by the same team behind the nearby Chabaa Thai Bistro, MangoMoon is part Zen destination, part lively nightspot (minus the 20-something crowd), depending on the day of the week. Its urban-chic interior—designed by Center City’s Missy Stang—reflects owner Nongyao “Moon” Krapugthong’s passion for tranquility and the symbiotic relationship between life’s sensual elements, whether it’s nature, food or people.

MangoMoon’s first floor is a prime spot for people watching; the second offers a little more privacy. Both have contemporary “down” lighting and wooden bistro tables. The light, earthtone walls are offset by dark furnishings, a granite bar and amber glass tiles. Striking artwork includes “Monk on Canvases,” a series of photos taken at a market in Bangkok, and 18,600 copper nails that spell the words to one of Krapugthong’s favorite Thai lullabies.

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In Thai culture, views are arranged so the landscape is always visible. At MangoMoon, Krapugthong hopes to give diners the sensation of being outside, with the moon above showering them with its blessings. Hence the large, copper lunar sphere created by East Falls artist Anthony Tyler.

If you’re dining at MangoMoon on a night when it’s less busy, try the bar—either alongside the window or at the 14-person communal table. That way, you can get better acquainted with all the bartender’s latest potions.

A mix of sun-dried rock shrimp, pan-roasted coconut, fresh ginger, lime slices, kaffir lime leaves, roasted peanuts and palm sugar sauce on a crisp lettuce wrap.THE FOOD: MangoMoon’s menu strives to put a sophisticated spin on traditional Northern Thai cuisine, borrowing from India, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and China. The flavors should be familiar to any dabbler in Asian fare. The limited selection is divided into small and medium dishes, with the idea that guests will order several items and indulge family-style.

Guests get a complimentary sake-size cup of hot or cold tea (depending on the weather), and at the bar, each day brings a new libation. At MangoMoon, its cocktails are an integral part of the dining experience, as they build on the various tastes coming out of the kitchen.

With her latest project, Krapugthong wanted to experiment with a wide variety of ingredients and “have fun without any limits.” Her vehicle, tapas, isn’t a foreign concept in Thailand. In fact, the Thai word kubklam roughly translates to “snacks.” Eat enough of those, and you have a meal.

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And yet, among those diners who’ve followed Krapugthong from Chabaa to MangoMoon, there’s been some reluctance to buy into the tapas concept. That unwillingness to share perplexes Moon, who’s witnessed the small-plate craze along with the rest of us.

As it turns out, smaller plates are the kitchen’s strong suit, dazzling more readily than the rest of the menu. The trio of plump blue point oysters had a clean flavor and not a hint of brininess. The light, mildly spicy chili-lime sauce—enhanced with diced garlic and Vietnamese mint— was rounder and smoother in flavor than a traditional mignonette. The roasted chili and plum sugar sauce delivered a nice kick to the tender slices of chargrilled, marinated pork neck filet. Wrapping the pork in the accompanying lettuce is a great excuse to play with your food.

Three mighty, impressively charred (but still pink inside) scallops made a lasting impression, with heat courtesy of a vivacious sweet-and-sour chili and fish sauce. The only complaint: their placement atop a lackluster, untidy heap of mixed greens and thin slivers of white onion—a presentation that seemed to undercut the kitchen’s artsy effort.

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The evening was raw and rainy, so the steamed rice in lotus leaf—with its hearty combination of sticky jasmine rice, Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, green peas, eggs, carrots and red onions—sounded like tasty comfort fare. Alas, it fell flat. For starters, the ingredients were cut so small that, when steamed, they shrunk to even tinier morsels. But that’s an easy fix—and knowing how much Krapugthong likes to experiment, don’t be surprised if she amps up the contents with fish and other vegetables.

Plates await their turn.The waiter steered us away from the MangoMoon steak after another diner commented that the meat was tough. So we chose the filet of sea bass, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed with Thai herbs. It was light and perfectly cooked, with a fresh mango sauce that didn’t overpower the fish. The salmon salad offered a clever juxtaposition of texture and spice—rectangles of crispy fish belly with a tangle of shallots, ginger, fresh mango slices, roasted peanuts, mint and cilantro, topped with fresh chili-lime dressing.

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A Thai staple, the mung bean cake was reminiscent of coarse grits or polenta (without the cheese), only much sweeter. With its caramelized top, lightly charred onions, creamy coconut milk, egg and palm sugar, this unconventional dessert hooked me from the first bite. I washed it down with a refreshing coconut mojito for good measure.

THE EXPERIENCE: Arriving on the later side of a quiet Tuesday night, we were one of a half dozen parties scattered throughout MangoMoon. While my dining companion labored to find a parking spot, I was led to a window seat in the bar, with a nice view of Main Street.

The waiter brought out a piping-hot cup of bold ginger tea, and a passionate mixologist started tossing out ideas for all kinds of tempting concoctions. I settled on a smooth Tanqueray gin and basil mojito, which went well with the complimentary wasabi peas and salted peanuts. The secret ingredient, I discovered, was aloe juice. I cringed a little at first, but when the bartender offered a taste, I was pleasantly surprised by its soothing mouth feel and refreshing flavor.

With all the attention, I felt well taken care of and slipped quickly into a relaxed state of mind. The waiter offered a MangoMoon tutorial, with insights on the various menu items. The ambiance was relaxing, to say the least—low lighting, unobtrusive music and a sparse crowd of regulars.

All of this seemed to indicate that, if you’re craving Asian tapas with a side of intimacy and romance, come during the week. The activity level increases with the crowds on Saturday and Sunday—and with MangoMoon’s hard surfaces and high ceilings, decibel levels are likely to increase considerably as well.

The perfect pourTHE SKINNY: There’s no disputing that MangoMoon’s concept is a noble one—to thoroughly immerse customers in the flavors and aromas of Thailand. In practice, though, Krapugthong appears to be playing it safe in not catering enough to those with heightened global culinary awareness.

It’s not enough to advocate a different way of eating (something Krapugthong already has found some resistance to). The level of intrigue must be elevated so customers get a true sense that what they’re experiencing really is special. Besides, if all goes well and the food makes an impact, the concept ought to be a moot point.

For now, Krapugthong is looking to add more medium plates and vegetarian dishes to the menu—probably a good move in this economy. Regardless, she shouldn’t be afraid to stand by her original vision and focus more on developing deeper flavor profiles with unique ingredients. Already, Krapugthong is planning a series of wine and food pairings to help diners negotiate her unique culinary journey. That should also provide the perfect opportunity to turn them on to lesser-known regional Thai cuisine.

Krapugthong’s established reputation at Chabaa is also an obstacle. Some regulars, it seems, expect the menu at MangoMoon to mirror what’s happening a few blocks west. But then, why open something new in the first place?

Location: 4161 Main St., Philadelphia; (215) 487-1230, (215) 487-1231,
Cuisine: Asian tapas
Cost: $12-$25 for medium plates
Attire: Casual
Atmosphere: Urban chic, minus the attitude
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Late-night menu: 9-11 p.m. Sunday-Monday, 10 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday

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