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Mango Tree's CEO Says His Restaurant Won't Be Too Spicy

Pitaya Phanphensophon, founder and CEO of global Thai restaurant chain Mango Tree, explains why he's opening his first U.S. outpost in Washington, D.C.

A rendering of Mango Tree at CityCenterDC
A rendering of Mango Tree at CityCenterDC

In late November or early December of this year, Thai restaurant Mango Tree is slated to open at CityCenterDC as the very first U.S. location for the Mango Tree brand. Originally started in Bangkok, Mango Tree has expanded to a whopping more than 70 restaurants around the world. CEO and Founder Pitaya Phanphensophon is gearing up for major expansion in America, but with the D.C. restaurant, he wants to change some misconceptions he thinks American still have about Thai food.

"The first thing people will think: spicy food," Phanphensophon said. "But we’re not that hot, even though we can be. We don’t make our food that hot and spicy until you can’t taste the freshness of it. It’s always our belief and principal that we serve fresh food."

Fresh, local ingredients are a bit of an obsession for Mango Tree, and that's how Phanphensophon thinks he can differentiate the restaurant from local competitors. That, and sleek, elegant decor with dark wood and metal elements to create a welcoming, "casual fine dining" experience. Phanphensophon explained his vision for Mango Tree in an interview at Toro Toro, one of the many restaurants owned by Phanphensophon's local partner Richard Sandoval.

What can diners expect from Mango Tree and how is it different from Thai food that they might’ve already experienced in D.C.?

We are restaurant people. I’m second-generation; my parents started with the restaurants. I guess it’s in my blood. Obviously our local partner here, Richard Sandoval, he has so much passion in the food business. I think what makes us different than other Thai restaurants is that we always use fresh ingredients because of our passion [for] food. And we run as a restaurant company, we always need to find a niche compared to most Thai restaurants overseas (and I say overseas; I’m based in Thailand).

When we are overseas, our biggest challenge is to be able to compete with mom and pop Thai restaurants. Our niche is that we always decorate our restaurants. First, our restaurant in general is bigger than normal mom and pop restaurants, and we use professional designers from interior to lighting. It is our principle that we need to source local most fresh ingredients. We never say "Ok, sea bass is a very popular fish in Thailand. And everywhere we want to use sea bass." That’s why I’m here, before it’s open, to sort out ingredients, whatever we can find locally.

We try to partner with certain suppliers who can provide the best quality consistently. I think the last part is very important: consistency. [In] Thai food, we use a lot of herbs which are foreign to many parts of America. Things like Kaffir limes, lemongrass, even chilies. We use color and fragrance from pandan leaves as well. It’s a bit difficult and those are tropical herbs and spices. There are people bringing those in. We have Kaffir lime leaves brought in from Thailand. Lemongrass is grown locally, which I am quite happy with.

Will Mango Tree be upscale in terms of decor?

We always call ourself casual fine dining. You can confidently come in with jeans, and yet you feel it’s not like fast food.

Is this the first Mango Tree in the U.S.?

This will be the first Mango Tree in the USA. Hopefully, it’s only the beginning of many. I heard that a lot of people here don’t like chain restaurants, but even though we run multiple restaurants in many countries, we always signature every restaurant differently. It’s not like copy, paste. You will find different decorations in all Mango Trees. Here, because it’s the capital, people enjoy a bit of luxury. We still believe America is the land of fun. It will be a lot of fun.

Does the menu change from restaurant to restaurant?

Obviously we kept our ten signature dishes all across, like green curry, red curry, some of the salads. Those we keep very much the same. We do have bar food, smaller dishes like tapas. That is different from here to let’s say in, Thailand. In Thailand, when people think of Mango Tree, they say "OK, it’s a Thai restaurant." Even though we have a proper bar and drinks list, we do not have a bar menu there, where here we do.


Mango Tree's Pitaya Phanphensophon

Why did you want to come to the U.S. and why Washington?

That’s the most frequently asked question. "Why D.C.? You can go to New York, you can go to L.A.?" First, it’s always our vision in the company to become a global brand restaurant. Why D.C.? I’ve been traveling many places in the USA, New York, Washington, Atlanta, Florida. But I felt more confident with D.C. in the sense that for us, building a restaurant, we want to go somewhere that we can expand.

D.C., it’s so obvious that people from every state come here. And you have very high number of businesses. And yet you have so many people working around D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and the resources of seafood are plentiful here compared to West Coast. We’re building the menu to balance between meat and seafood. From our experience, people are changing. People are eating lighter, they’re more health conscious. And D.C. you can get a lot of seafood nearby.

So you would expand within D.C.?

That’s what we would like to do, expand Mango Tree the flagship, what we call the signature Mango Tree, casual fine dining. The next project would be called Mango Tree Cafe. That would be more casual, more easy to understand.

Why did you pick CityCenterDC?

We felt CityCenter is in a good location, with all the big hotels around and offices. I believe they think our concept fits them. They want something different, which is Thai restaurant. Something finer than fast food. Like it or not, Thai food is still "ethnic food." Maybe because more Americans are traveling to Asia, Thai food has become more popular in the past 15 to 20 years. I actually was involved in the Thai government 15 to 18 years ago. Our ambition was to bring Thai food to the top five cuisines in the world. Now were slowly inching up to that position, which I am very happy about.

I heard CityCenter's layout can be difficult for restaurants.

For us it’s two stories. We story, but it’s actually a blessing in disguise for us as well. We’re making the ground floor a bar, you don’t have to go sit down and eat, you can hop to the bar and order a few tidbits to eat. Upstairs is more formal, and we’ve used a designer from Spain.

We were talking about cuisines from different countries before. I was wondering, what is your favorite American dish?

I went to school in Canada. When I was young, I thought American food was like hamburgers. But now even [the] hamburger market has changed. You’re moving from fast food, McDonald’s, to a lot of gourmet hamburgers which is really good. You’re moving from frozen patties to patties prepped in-house. That’s when I thought, "OK, America has changed." American eating habits have changed. Thai food, we need to prep in-house every day.

Before this trip, I went down to South Carolina, and I experienced the food down south. It’s quite fresh, even though a little bit on the sweet side. Thai food, we tend to add hint of sweetness into every savory. I just loved the crabcakes. I made friends who owned a restaurant in Hilton Head, and he was kind enough to give me his crabcake recipe, which we’re going to try. [Those are] the best crabcakes I’ve ever had in the world, period. We will be offering it here at Mango Tree.

Mango Tree will be located at 929 H St NW Washington, DC 20001.