Oh Moon Goddess, please provide us rice and curry. . . .
When the Moon Goddess of Manayunk is listening to this prayer - the full Thai lullaby is spelled out with 18,600 copper nails artfully tapped into the wall at MangoMoon - chef Nongyao "Moon" Krapugthong can see it work.
The customers pour into her snazzy new small-plate Asian pub, and as warm currents of lemongrass-scented air rise from the grill fires in her open kitchen, the big copper sculpture of a moon dangling overhead starts to spin in the spice-tinged breeze.
It hasn't spun quite as fast, honestly, as Krapugthong might have hoped when she opened for business in late December. After all, she had already established a loyal clientele for her other restaurant nearby, Chabaa Thai, to draw from.
But MangoMoon serves a different kind of Thai fare from the more familiar menu at Chabaa. There isn't a pad Thai in sight, and the rich coconut milk curries are at a minimum. The best of the small plates here - "kub klam," in Thai - leap from her charcoal grill splashed in a potent brew of fish sauce, chiles, and aromatic spice. And many carry the allure of adventure dining - from grilled pork "neck" to "salty tiny fish" and sea cucumber soup - that are a harder sell to Main Street Manayunk than initially expected. This is especially true in an economy in which diners are reluctant to spend their dollars on anything but a safe bite.
But the truth is that few of these dishes are nearly as scary as they sound. And at reasonable prices, less than $10 for the small plates, the risk is minimal for dishes well worth discovering.
Ever try homemade sausage in the northern Thai style? MangoMoon's heat-crisped links crackle with the garlicky zing of galangal and Kaffir lime. The pork "neck" is technically shoulder meat, due to availability (sorry, neck fans!). But the chef leaves just enough fat attached to add a rustic savor to those charcoal-grilled tender strips, whose sweet and salty marinade took on extra zip with a dip of tamarind, chiles, and ground rice.
Krapugthong's confident hand with her native seasoning also lights a fire of new interest beneath some common dishes: lending Blue Point oysters a tingly sour splash of chile-lime sauce; igniting "Bangkok" chicken wings in a fiery glaze that elicited a surprising yelp - "Wowie-zowie!" - from my demure guest. The creamy spice of a killer satay sauce lacquered butter-tender head-on shrimp. And baby octopus, still hot from the grill, basked in a cool marinade that vibrated to the high-toned hum of fried lemongrass and Thai bird chile heat.
Krapugthong even managed to transform skewered chicken livers, marinated in the sweet dark funk of oyster sauce and soy, into crispy grilled cubes with creamy insides that have become a most unlikely bar-snack infatuation.
These are just the kind of bold, unique flavors that should belong on a restaurant strip like Manayunk's that hopes to shake off its decade-old blahs and recapture some mojo.
With the added bonus of a handsome hideaway bar upstairs in this contemporary trilevel space, fitted out with a polished copper community table, floating flowerpots, and an evocative landscape banner draped from the ceiling, I can imagine MangoMoon becoming a go-to hang-out for a casual drink and an exotic nibble.
The bar offers a small but well-crafted list of trendy Asian cocktails (the creamy coconut mojito was addictive). But there's also a nice list of cold sakes, spice-friendly white wines (vinho verde, gewurztraminer), and enough craft beers that MangoMoon was at ease hosting events for the recent Beer Week. A flight of Asian beers, from gingery Hitachino Nest to San Miguel dark and the lesser-seen Thai brew Chang, proved the perfect complement to grilled skewers of marinated pork loin with pickled lotus roots.
Whether MangoMoon will ever find its audience with Manayunk's largely mainstream crowd is uncertain. And to be sure, the restaurant still has a host of unfinished rough spots to hone, especially with service. Everyone we met was friendly, and most were reasonably informative. But too often, the staff was deeply confused and out of sync, slow to greet us and take our orders, lax on refilling drinks (water can be a real issue when food is spicy), and completely uninterested in important details like clearing puddles of sticky sauce and clumps of errant food from the table.
None of our servers, meanwhile, adequately explained how best to build a meal here from the unusual menu broken down into dish categories dubbed "small," "medium," and "tiny." Are the tiny dishes simply bar nibbles or starchy supplements to the larger dishes? They can be either, depending upon which you choose. The Thai spice-roasted nuts and chewy threads of tiny deep-fried fish are definite Chang-quaffing inducers. The flaky roti bread and peanut sauce, meanwhile, or the plain white rice noodles work best as supporting actors to another larger dish.
If MangoMoon hopes to become a solid destination for a complete meal, it might also benefit from a stronger collection of larger dishes. I quite liked the meaty chunks of fried cobia fish dunked in spicy pink coconut-milk curry. The steamed bass with pureed mango was delicate and light. But the stir-fried beef with mushrooms was an uncharacteristic bland bore. And while the game bird in rich massaman curry was an interesting upgrade over the typical chicken, it was too reminiscent of the usual presentations MangoMoon aims to sidestep, and lacked the finesse that sets the other cooking here apart.
Krapugthong should either bolster this handful of entrees with more intriguing dishes for sharing, or drop them altogether in favor of an all-out commitment to the small plates, which had more than enough personality to hold my interest.
Among the others worth remembering were the black strips of house-dried Thai jerky, every fiber of its delightfully chewy beef permeated with its marinade of cilantro root, peppercorn, and fish sauce. The shrimp and coconut soup was a dynamic bowl of power flavors, with eddies of red chile oil and sour cilantro lime swirling up through its coconut-creamed broth.
Even more delightfully complex, though, were the crunchy lettuce wraps (meang khum) filled with a riot of toasty crunch and spark - coconut shreds and chewy dried shrimp, pithy bits of juicy lime, spicy ginger, and of course, the hot breath of chile - all ready for their dip in a sweet and musky dish of palm sugar mixed with shrimp paste.
With so much sweetness already edging into the savory meal, Krapugthong spends what little energy she has left on two notable desserts - a warm mound of sweet sticky rice topped with cold ripe mango, and a mung bean custard. That custard is, like so much of this menu, a bit different from anything I've tasted, at once earthy, sweet, and comforting. As the last morsel of it disappeared, I saw the copper disc above us spin, and knew the Moon Goddess was listening in.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews El Camino Real in Northern Liberties. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.