A planned expansion of Muang Thai into an adjoining flower shop will provide direct access to the outdoor seating area, below, that now requires a walk around the corner. (Photo below courtesy of Muang Thai. Click to enlarge)
By ROBERT KERN
The mark of a Thai cuisine master goes beyond knowing which ingredients to use. Herbs and spices like lemongrass, ginger, chilies and lime leaves – also known as kaffir – need to be handled and selected so they deliver the most flavor.
“Make sure the lime leaves are mature,” said Chanarong ‘Jack’ Pongnoo, owner and chef at Red Bank’s Muang Thai restaurant. “The older leaves have much more flavor.”
Expertise like that is not gotten from books or watching cooking shows, but from long years learning and mastering techniques. Like so many other master chefs, Pongnoo attended the traditional school: his mother’s stove.
In Udon Thani, Pongnoo spent years absorbing all the knowledge and secrets to creating traditional Thai dishes from his mother. He went on to learn restaurant and hotel management at the university in his home town.
“Thai dishes are very flavorful,” he said, “and they can vary from mild to very hot because Thai cuisine loves chilies.”
Dishes include appetizers like Muang Thai Mermaids – marinated shrimp and coriander root, stuffed in ground chicken, individually wrapped in eggroll skin and served with spicy plum sauce.
For entrees, diners can choose from curries and Pad Thai dishes or exotic offerings like Kung-Ob-Woon-Sen, a dish of glass noodles, baked fresh jumbo shrimps, ground chicken, sesame-oil, fresh ginger, carrot, celery, and Chinese cabbage with Thai chilies sauce.
Pongnoo is selective about where his ingredients originate, and has sampled suppliers from around the country to find those that give his dishes the same qualities he enjoyed growing up.
He continues the family tradition by handing down knowledge and skills to his son Crecenciano ‘Zacarin’ Cruz, who oversees the kitchen in Pngnoo’s other restaurant, in Spotswood.
Pongnoo suggests first-time diners talk to their servers about the meats and vegetables they like, along with how hot and spicy they like their food. All dishes are prepared “medium hot,” according to Pongnoo, but customers can get them hotter.
“They may want to test the sauces and taste a sample before ordering,” he said. “That way their first experience with Thais cooking will be a good one.”
Before opening in Red Bank, Pongnoo owned the Thai Chili restaurant in Eatontown, but found the number of customers dropping when Fort Monmouth closed.
In March, Muang Thai moved into the intimate space at 7 East Front Street – at the corner of Wharf Avenue – taking over space last occupied by La Petit France. Since then, the restaurant’s popularity has grown steadily, and after only five months, Pongnoo plans to take over the shop next door, expanding the dining area and gaining faster, more direct access to a back garden terrace for outdoor dining in warm weather.
Flowers on Front, which currently occupies the space next door, will be moving to a new location in town, according to owner Tina Bullwin.
Muang Thai is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. On Sunday the restaurant is open from noon until 10 p.m. For more information, visit the website or call Call 732-741-9999.