Manayunk’s newest eatery will send you over the moon.
Junior year, Hayden Hall: the when and where of my first encounter with a sea cucumber. My oceanography T.A. reached into the tank of starfish, urchins and anemones and gently prodded the turd-shaped bottom-dweller. It promptly stiffened and deployed its defense system— a prey-entangling spiderweb—out of its butt. It was gross, but also kind of cool.
My second close encounter occurred in January, on a narrow low-tide sandbar linking two tiny keys in Thailand’s Andaman Sea. As high tide rolled in, the sandbar vanished, and as I was double-timing it back to my boat, I narrowly avoided stepping on a wild white sea cucumber wiggling through the crystal surf.
By our third meeting, during an orgy of exotic dim sum at Manayunk’s MangoMoon, the underwater cuc and I were well acquainted. In this setting, though, it posed no threat of a surprise underfoot squish or Spider-Man-lunchroom-scene ejac. Rather, it was very dead, whittled into small, appealing pieces and floating in chicken broth with enokis, shiitakes, tofu and water lily blossoms.
With the dried lilies imported from China and the fresh cucumbers flown in from Japan, this soup is not what you’d call eco-friendly. You would, however, call it stomach-friendly. The broth was golden and delicate, the mushrooms earthy, the tofu the silkiest I’ve ever had. And the sea cucumber … well, if you groove on the oceany flavor and slightly chewy texture of octopus, you’ll groove on this too. And if you groove on eating novel and interesting things, you’ll groove on MangoMoon, where Bangkok-born chef/owner Nongyao “Moon” Krapugthong is on a mission to serve food that is both delicious and “palate-pushing.”
There are some conventional dishes (heavenly shui mai, tropical fruit salad, buttery roti, overcooked tiger shrimp satay with the most flavor-charged peanut sauce this side of Indonesia), but exotica is MangoMoon’s sweet spot. Krapugthong’s menu of small plates reads like a witch’s spell book—one neck of pork, two livers of chicken, root of cilantro, leaves of lotus—and contains more than a little magic. Mung beans morphed into sweet palm sugar cakes. Beef jerky became art. Blue Point oysters, which I normally find as ungainly and garish as everything else that comes from Long Island, did a crisp, succulent turn, their shells cradling bright, funky tide pools of oyster liquor, fish sauce, lime juice, bird chilies, cilantro and mint.
You won’t find oysters on the half at Krapugthong’s other Manayunk address, perennially popular Chabaa Thai Bistro, or at any Thai restaurants I know of in 10-mile radius. Then again, you won’t find a respectable sake selection, kaffir lime leaf mojitos or a massive gong dangling from the three-story atrium like a copper uvula either. MangoMoon is not your average curry house, evident from the moment you enter from Main Street and witness the moon goddess lullaby spelled out on the wall in thousands of carefully clustered copper nails.
What the food is served on warrants nearly as much attention as the food itself: plates in glossy Andaman blues and greens, some tattooed with tiny blue blossoms and filigreed dragonflies, others shaped like shiso leaves and Dead Sea Scrolls. Classic coconut sticky rice topped with a sweet fresh mango arrived with a teak-handled copper fork embossed with a Thai deity and the word “SIAM,” a vintage treasure from a Bangkok flea market.
We’re indoctrinated to believe the fuglier an ethnic restaurant is, the more authentic its food, but clean, comfortable, impeccably styled MangoMoon is a clear, ringing exception. I never would’ve expected somewhere with 15 different dish designs to deliver me back to Bangkok, but the grilled fat-laced pork neck marinated in garlic, cilantro root and oyster sauce certainly did. As did the chicken livers, skewered and grilled, the smokiness stirring echoes of streetside barbecues crowded with all sorts of weird meats on sharp sticks.
I couldn’t stop eating the sai auh, a Northern-style pork-and-rice sausage that Krapugthong makes from scratch and broils until blistered and crispy. Each bite triggered flashbacks. Galangal. Kaffir lime. Lemongrass. Anyone with Internet access or a way to get to Washington Avenue can find those ingredients, but only an honest chef can make them taste, so convincingly, like home.
In this week's Bon Appecheap, MangoMoon chef-owner Nongyao “Moon” Krapugthong shows us how to make lemongrass chicken and a refreshing papaya salad.