By Ainsley Maloney
Photography By Susan Beard
On an unseasonably warm October evening, I’m enjoying refreshing sips of pandan leaf-infused iced tea and sharing easy conversation with Moon Krapugthong in her new Binto Market & Café as customers flow in and out and gentle piano music fills the air. Radiating warmth, Chef Moon is infinitely more laidback and approachable than I expected of the owner of two of the most esteemed restaurants in Manayunk—Chabaa Thai and Yanako.
Interestingly, Moon keeps using similar words to describe her new quick-serve café Binto.
“It’s accessible,” she says. “It’s relaxed. Casual. It’s quick, grab-and-go Asian dishes. You can come in, and for $2, go out with a drink or a snack. And it’s for all ages—even babies!”
This past August, Moon reopened her beloved BYOB Chabaa Thai at the corner of Grape and Main Streets (4343-4345 Main St.), just a few buildings down from its previous location, but this time, with a brand new quick-serve market and café concept, Binto, attached right next door.
Chef Moon decided to close Chabaa’s original spot in 2014, while in the interim continuing to serve Pad Thai-craving customers all of their favorites out of her Japanese eatery, Yanako, a few blocks away.
“You know when it’s like you grow out of your bed, and it cannot accommodate you for the concept you have? I was looking for a bigger space, and I had my eye on this building for awhile,” she said, referring to the tandem property that was previously Main Street Market.
The concept Chef Moon had in mind was to not only move Chabaa to a kitchen big enough to expand to a newly launched catering service, but also to answer her customers’ desire for Asian food to be more accessible.
“Longtime customers used to tell me they would go to the Asian market and find something really fun, but they didn’t know what to do with it!” she says, incredulous.
This fact simply wasn’t going to stand with the Bangkok-raised chef who, frankly, lives for morning markets.
“When I shop at the market, my eyes go like this: whoooo,” she says, circling her fingers around her widened eyes. “I want this, this—that!” She wants customers to experience that excitement without leaving Main Street to find it.
Now, every morning, Moon wakes early to shop the Asian markets in Northeast and South Philly and Chinatown to personally stock her Main Street market with Vietnamese, Japanese, and Thai staples, all at affordable prices. At Binto, shoppers can peruse fresh produce such as okra, eggplant, lentil, sweet basil, and mint, or pick up dinner items such as Asian noodles, tofu, and homemade curry sauce.
“Binto represents my accumulative experience as a chef, as a shopper, as a wife, as a mom, and as a cook who loves cooking at home,” she says. “They all come together here. We guarantee that everything is fresh. And if I do not have it in stock, and a customer asks for it, I know where to get it!”
In addition to grocery items, Binto offers premade items for lunch or dinner. There’s Chef Moon’s homemade spring rolls, seaweed salad, or her signature green curry with tofu and rice in a personal portion just under $6 to heat up at home. After a spin or yoga class, patrons can grab a refreshing $2 tea house infused with pandan leaf, mint, jujube, or lemongrass. During lunch, office workers from Manayunk, East Falls or City Line can stop in from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a rotating lineup of hot-serve lunch options, such as taro tofu dumplings, massaman chicken curry, or tom-yam soup (the menu changes daily—“depends on my mood!” Chef Moon says.) Finally, customers seeking a mid-day pick me up can grab a creamy homemade Thai Iced Coffee or Thai Iced Tea, prepared fresh daily.
For customers looking to venture further into Asian home cooking, wooden shelves line the walls with a sophisticated lineup of woks, steamers, mortar and pestles, dipping sauce sets and beautiful tea sets (some imported from Thailand, others made by local artists). In the future, Moon hopes to offer cooking classes and to-go boxes of pre-portioned items, complete with Moon’s signature recipes.
Creating two unique spaces with a shared energy was, to Moon, equally as important as her commitment to serving high-quality, authentic cuisine. The chef-artist combed through the finest details over the past several years of renovations.
“I’m a really creative person, and I’m flexible. So I could pre-visualize the framework—I could go right, left, up, down,” she says of the bi-level, dual property, “while still unifying the whole theme of the space. As a customer, when you walk into a restaurant, you should feel the spirit of the place. You should feel like you’ve been taken care of, that you receive a warm welcome. If you don’t receive a warm welcome, if the server doesn’t say anything, you feel disconnected. Why do you go to that place? The message we’re sending is really strong that it has to be the right energy.”
Chef Moon entrusted all local vendors with this very intricate undertaking. For the remodeling and building, she relied on Main Street’s United Makers. For the architecture and interior design, she partnered with Re:Vision Architecture on Grape Street and for the kitchen design, she turned to Judy Spielman of Space By Spielman.
“The architect, Mike, he understands my language. He listens to my voice, you know? I told him, ‘I want to sit under an umbrella in an open space.’ And guess what? He created the design for the canopy that’s hanging under the ceiling [in Chabaa Thai]. People love it!”
The canopy includes a copper frame designed by Todd Rubio, an architecture graduate student at Philadelphia University and gorgeous burlap fabric created by Moon’s assistant, Melly Lukito.
The interior design of Chabaa is at once handsome and elegant. As customers enter the restaurant, they are greeted by an airy interior trellis overhead. Sectioned off to the right and left are black cushioned private dining areas, plated to perfection. Bronze lotus sculptures and candles decorate the walls, while a serene Buddha centers the energy of the restaurant. Displayed in the front window, respectfully, is a hand-carved wood spirit house mounted on a pillar, its steep roof pointing toward the sky, a selection Moon discovered and had imported from a morning market in Thailand.
“In the house there’s a baby sleeping, dreaming of the moon. This [temple] brings in the Thai belief that every place has a spirit or angel to protect the space,” Moon explains. “Everything here has a story.”
Moon chose an open concept so that customers could move seamlessly from the swanky Chabaa side to the casual Binto side, while feeling the continuity of a calming, nurturing ambiance. Binto’s relaxed atmosphere is further encouraged with the presence of a back play area for children to hang out while mom and dad shop. Foam puzzle letters carpet the floor, while a giant pop-up book props up against a xylophone. On the wall is a self-portrait drawn by Moon’s 9-year-old daughter, Tinnha. The room is so close to the Chabaa Thai’s kitchen, that sometimes, when Moon is cooking, she can hear the xylophone playing.
“If mom and dad come to pick up food or go shopping, they can drop off their kid. Mom can bring her laptop and sit at the high top by the window, have a quick lunch with friends,” Moon said. “I wanted a space that’s fun—a grab-and-go, in-and-out all day, cool corner store for the community. When I see mom come with her baby in the carrier, talking to her girlfriends, I like that! I’m like, ‘Yes, come, hang out! Make it a public space!’”
As Moon shows me her daughter’s drawing, I can’t help but feel like she has welcomed me into her home, rather than her place of business. I share with her that Chabaa Thai has always held a special place in my heart: her original spot is where my boyfriend and I had our first date more than three years ago.
“Really!” she exclaims. Her eyes light up. “Wow. That is so great!” She rests her cheek in her palm, reflecting on what a staple her restaurant has become in Manayunk over the past decade.
“I have a special relationship with my customers. They have their first date here, get engaged here, have their wedding shower here,” Moon said. “I’ve been here for 12 years, so long enough to see it start. Some have kids, they move away, come back—I’m such an old momma! Some call me ‘Momma Moon.’”
It seems fitting that customers can, in one step, move from Chabaa’s elegant, perfectly plated restaurant into Binto’s casual, laid-back café. These spaces appear to reflect Moon’s dual life roles at the moment: one, as the executive chef who owns two top-rated restaurants in Philly, and the other, as the friendly, down-to-earth “momma” who welcomes regulars with an easy smile and warm embrace.
“When am I happy?” Moon asks, her answer illuminating the twin passions that drive her. “When everything’s right: when the lighting is correct, when everything is nice and clean, when the tables are straight, when the food is fresh and prepared just right.” Moon gets up to straighten items in the freezer—to remind her staff of a few key details on her mind. Then the 5’1” owner returns, back to being fully engaged in our conversation. “I am happy when I hear customers compliment, ‘Oh, it was such a good experience!’ I want you to walk out of these doors feeling like you treated yourself to something special that this little woman can create for you as a gift for the day! Then? Then, I feel like I already got paid.”
Right now, Moon is truly back in momma-chef mode as she begins her journey of nurturing this newborn of a market/café/restaurant, one that may take a village to raise—but at least she’s the best one for the job. Manayunk has done it before, supporting Chabaa over the past decade as it became Zagat rated and elevated to one of the best Thai restaurants in the city.
“This is like a baby again,” she says of Chabaa. “Even 10 years later, it was closed for two years. So it gets most of my attention for now.”
Luckily, she considers her team like a family, some of whom have been with her all 12 years. Moon’s partner manages the day-to-day at Yanako, and her esteemed chefs—Agus “Howie” Lukito, Eddie Kwong and Ya Charatsil—are cross-trained at both establishments. Then there’s Sasima “Jay” Suponrit who helps Moon behind the scenes in the office and with event coordination. “There is enough love here,” she says of the Manayunk community.
“If there was no love, no support, I would be long gone. It’s fun—it’s busy —but it’s a labor of love. You have to love it.”
And we do, Moon.
Visit the Manayunk Development Corporation Contact page for full contact information.
Office: 4312 Main Street, Philadelphia, PA 19127