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Review: Green Mango Noodle Hut celebrates family Thais

| Monday, June 18, 2012, 2:02 a.m.

As a teenager growing up on the family chicken farm in Thailand, Ling Panyokeaw had to cook not just for her family, but the employees, too -- about 50 people.

So when she decided two decades ago to move to Pittsburgh on the recommendation of a friend living here, she was relieved to say goodbye to cooking.

The one thing she missed was green mangos. The crunchy, sour fruit -- not a special kind, but the regular variety before it ripens -- is a popular snack in her homeland.

"When I'm hungry for something -- my favorite food -- I'm hungry for mango," she says.

That explains the name of The Green Mango Noodle Hut, Ling and husband Mark Robinson's restaurants in Regent Square and at Penn Center in Wilkins.

As for the cooking, well, Ling didn't stay out of that business for long. She met Mark -- who was adopted by an Army nurse in Vietnam -- when they were both working in a Thai place in town, she as a waitress, he as a bartender. When he worked as a health care manager, she started a Thai food truck, then moved up to a takeout place in Oakland, then to the Regent Square eatery.

Painted in mango colors of green, yellow and orange and decorated with framed shadow puppets, the new place in Wilkins opened last month. Ling splits time in the two kitchens with her sister, Kop. The Robinsons' daughter, Kathy, is a waitress, and their sons Stephen and Jason have been known to sing for customers.

With 75 items even before you get to the desserts, Green Mango's menu offers something for everyone. If spices scare you, it's easy to get through dinner without breaking a sweat. And with selections like Tofu Rad Prik, Moo Dang and Phuket Pineapple Fried Rice, the menu can spark some amusing table banter.

The excellent Summer Rolls ($6.50-$8.50) are wrapped in soft, chewy rice paper and come sliced in bite-size halves, a bit like maki sushi, with a rich dipping sauce. We chose roast duck, but the dominant flavor was bright green -- the fresh lettuce, mint, cilantro and basil stuffed with the meat and vermicelli.

A far cry from health food is Fried Tofu ($4), deep-fried chunks that came to our table piping hot and spiced with ginger.

We got our first taste of spice with delicious Tod Mon Pla ($7.50), deep-fried cakes of tilapia and ground shrimp. A diced cucumber sauce helps cool down the tender patties.

Tofu Mango Salad ($7.50) has more fried tofu, plus some of that green mango Ling is crazy about.

But another thing Thais go ga-ga over, fish sauce, spoiled the Thai Beef Salad ($8.50) for us. The sauce, pressed from salted, fermented fish, is the ketchup of Southeast Asia, but definitely an acquired taste for Westerners. While the acidic mangos in the one salad completely hid the fishiness, the beef brought it out in an unsavory clash.

We much preferred the Drunken Noodles with Beef ($11.95). Something like a pasta dish with fat rice noodles, it's cooked in a chili-basil sauce. Which contains no alcohol, Ling says. The dish is so named because the sauce is so rich, even a drunk can taste it.

Queen Tilapia ($12.99) isn't a Thai standard, she said. It's a family recipe, and its regal title comes from when her parents were young and poor, and meat was a luxury and treated that way. Big pieces of fish are stir-fried with onions, bell peppers, basil and -- surprise -- mangos, in a wonderfully sweet and mildly spicy brown sauce with jasmine rice.

Another tilapia dish, Choo Chee Pla ($11.99), is a chef's specialty. The fish is stewed in a red curry and served with rice, bell peppers and green beans, sprinkled with kaffir lime leaves.

Ling says she cooks her Chicken Pad Thai ($10) for several hours, according to the traditional Thai recipe. Unfortunately, tradition calls for the fish sauce. A lemon wedge is supplied to combat the effect, but we lacked the willpower to try more than a few bites.

The BYOB restaurant graciously charges no corkage fee. But don't fail to order a refreshing Smoothie ($3.50), which is not a Thai drink but something Ling picked up from a friend who used to live in Hawaii.

Besides papaya, coconut and the obvious mango, Green Mango has a surprisingly tasty avocado smoothie sweetened with honey. For more drink whimsy, ask for "bubbles." All the rage in Asia, these gummi-bear-like drops of tapioca are plopped in the glass and consumed via a big, fat straw.

Any smoothie -- or, for that matter, the powerful and creamy Thai Iced Tea or Iced Coffee ($2.50) -- would go well with Green Mango's simple desserts. Sticky Rice ($4.50) pairs a cake of cool steamed rice soaked with sweet coconut milk with either a fan of fresh mango slices or a big dollop of Thai custard.

Ticket restaurant reviewers visit restaurants anonymously. They pay in full for all food, wines and services. Interviews are done only after meals and services have been appraised.

Additional Information:

Green MangoNoodle Hut

Cuisine: Thai

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $9.50-$12.99

Notes: BYOB with no corkage fee. Full menu for lunch, with most entrees about $3 cheaper.

Address: Penn Center, 3492 William Penn Highway (Business Route 22), Wilkins

Details: 412-244-3310

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