Mango Tree: Tree of destiny

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Destiny is a mystical but very real concept to me. I believe that the clues to one’s destiny are scattered like puzzle pieces, doled out in bits, at random times beginning from our early childhood. But for most of us, we fail to recognize them as we rush through our youth.  But we finally realize, as adults, when we reach our intended path, how the signs were there all along. It’s like connecting the dots, really. The random dots won’t make sense at the start, but once complete, tracing the path backwards, it’s easy to see how they all make sense. Such is the story of the couple behind one of my favorite restaurants, Mango Tree.

Twenty or so years ago, one of the most popular dining destinations in the city was “Flavors and Spices” in Greenbelt, back when it was still actually verdant. It was located in the mall’s tree-lined restaurant row, next to La Tasca, New Orleans  and the Beverly Hills Deli. They’re all gone now; that area where they used to stand is now Greenbelt 5.

“Flavors and Spices” was recognized as the country’s first premium and truly popular Thai restaurant, and for many members of my generation, it was where we discovered Tom Yum Goong and Gai Hor Bai Toey, a.k.a. the Pandan Fried Chicken.

Two young people went on their very dinner together there, and aside from being wowed by the new flavors and spices from Thailand, they also discovered how much they enjoyed each other’s company. Not too long after, they married, and in 1999, the spouses Eric and Emelda Teng launched a women’s fashion brand, Maldita, which is now one of the most successful in the country.  Fast forward a decade later, and they obtained the local rights to franchise one of the world’s most highly regarded Thai restaurant chains, Mango Tree.

Mango Tree opened as a home-style restaurant in Bangkok’s Silom Road, and now has branches in Dubai, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and in Metro Manila, thanks to the Teng couple.  World class Thai cuisine at its best, now in the Philippines, from the husband and wife team who, once upon a time, had their first date in a Thai restaurant.  See? The dots do connect. Mr. and Mrs. Teng have fulfilled their destiny – for starters, that part of it, because much more unfolds to be destined in their story.

Destiny also played a significant role in how they brought Mango Tree to the Philippines.  The Thailand Trade Consul reached out to a friend of the Tengs, as he saw great potential for the restaurant’s success in the Philippines. Fate once again intervened and somehow, communication was made, so Eric serendipitously received the call.  He was sufficiently intrigued, as he has both Filipino and Thai roots, but had never fully embraced that side of his family tree, that of his mother’s. And after confirming that his friend was not interested, Eric explored the options deeper, and soon, he found himself scoping for the most suitable locations in the city. He decided to establish Mango Tree as his tribute to his mom, and the best way to recognize and honor his blood connection to Thailand.

Eric’s first visit to his other homeland was as an eighteen year old. He found Thailand hot and humid, and at that time, significantly less developed than the Philippines. But one thing struck him, and stuck: the undiluted culture of the Thais, and the sheer pride and pure devotion they have for their native traditions. He recalls how impressed he was by how the dishes and recipes are always based on simplicity, with a focus on freshness. And this impression was reinforced when he took a stroll along a footpath in a tiny enclave just outside Bangkok, and suddenly found himself deep in a field of basil plants, the fragrant leaves surrounding him, in a sense, welcoming him home. It’s this unique paradox of urban and rural life – the freshest produce grown minutes away from the city center – and the other contradictions, that of the simplest ingredients combining magically to produce the most complex flavors, that made Eric truly fall for Thai cuisine.  And that’s the experience that he now shares in the luxurious flagship Mango Tree restaurant on Bonifacio High Street in the BGC.

The menu is a deep dive into the traditional dishes of four regions of Thailand. It’s an excellent, extensive menu, truly representative of our neighboring country. The cold appetizers alone are comprised of almost twenty choices.  It’s a restaurant, with a menu that’s curated to make patrons linger over their meal. Leisurely leaf through the menu, and the internal battle to choose just a few items is often a losing proposition. While I consider Mango Tree to be one of the most ravishingly romantic restaurants in the city, it’s best to come here with a larger group, and order family style, so everyone can share in the bounty.

The very first time I dined at Mango Tree, the Khor Moo Yang Nam Tok leaped out at me from the menu. It’s a dish from the Northeastern part of the country, a salad tossed with roasted rice, shallots, dried red chilis, and kaffir lime. But my affection for this appetizer is based on the protein in the mix: grilled pork neck, a tender, tasty portion of the pig which I’ve never enjoyed anywhere before. It became my instant favorite and the first thing I always order there. I pair it with the most unique item on the beverage menu: the intriguing Tomato Lime shake. Think of it as a non-alcoholic Thai Bloody Mary. It’s an acquired taste, but truly spectacular.

However, I’m not certain if many of my fellow Pinoys are as adventurous as I am; it seems I’m the most avid fan of the menu items which I suspect aren’t the obvious bestsellers.  But for me, that’s the whole point of dining in an authentic establishment such as this, to completely immerse myself and show respect for another culture, to lose myself in an exotic cuisine in a restaurant that prides itself on only the most genuine ingredients, prepared strictly in the most traditional manner. Mango Tree is where you should bring yourself for the most impeccable, extraordinary, and unforgettable Thai experience.

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