Mongkoltep Thai Restaurant is a family-run operation in Newnan’s picturesque town square. Pulling into Newnan, I am hearing immediately the anthemic chorus of “Ain’t that America” from John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” in my head.
Images of wholesome families, quaint storefront businesses and the stately Coweta County Courthouse in the center of the square could have all been glancing shots in Mellencamp’s music video. I had not been to Newnan before, but this small-town charm is not new to me. I grew up in a town like this in east Tennessee.
I feel as if I’m home, but my hometown didn’t have any exotic dining choices like Mongkoltep. Owner/chef Montri Youngfuengment (Young for short) relocated to Newnan and opened the Thai restaurant 13 months ago, opting for a quieter life after a couple of restaurant ventures in metro Atlanta. Young grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where he honed his cooking skills at his parents’ street market food stall. He demonstrates deftness at food preparation, presentation and playfulness with appetizers. But like the languid soundtrack of smooth jazz trickling from the restaurant speakers, I am uninspired by the entrees.
The biggest issue with the majority of food I sampled at Mongkoltep is sugar. It’s in everything here, and it overpowers. I don’t particularly care for too much sugar in my food (unless it’s dessert), but I understand that it is an ingredient fundamental to Thai cuisine.
The seafood lover ($16) lives up to its name, as the dish is loaded with a bouncy medley of mussels, scallops, squid and shrimp dressed in a thin, murky garlic sauce. The spicy lamb ($16) arrives in a similar garlic sauce. The restaurant gets high marks for the tender meat and the high quality of the seafood and vegetables, but I am overwhelmed by the sauce’s sweetness.
Meanwhile, spiciness is nonexistent in most of the restaurant’s entrees. The menu instructs diners to specify their preferred level of spice, ranging from one to four stars, with four being “Thai hot.” I requested three stars or “hot” for my lamb dish, but either my server forgot to instruct the kitchen or “hot” is extremely tame. I’m inclined to believe my server forgot. You can request heat on the side, cute containers holding dry ground pepper and a vibrant sambal chili sauce.
I found myself spooning dried chili over orders of barbecue chicken ($13) and massaman curry with chicken ($10) to balance out the intense sweetness. Both dishes are prepared in a rich, coconut curry sauce alongside chunks of potato and avocado. The latter arrives in a pretty two-story serving device kept warm by a votive candle contained in the bottom level.
Mongkoltep’s strengths are evident in its appetizers. The larb ($7), lime-flavored minced chicken mixed with red onion and cilantro, is an example of the Thai flavors that I love. It’s served with cabbage leaves for scooping, and the spice, salt and sugar levels strike a balanced accord. Kanom jeeb ($5) are wonderful house-made steamed dumplings with pork, shrimp and mushroom stuffed into pleated dough wrappers. The savory filling pairs well with a sweet woodsy soy dipping sauce.
A papaya salad appetizer ($8) is also enjoyable — and a sight to behold. A generous mound of shredded fresh green papaya topped with ground peanuts arrives in an elevated serving dish and is flanked by two skewers of curry-flavored chicken that are fall-apart tender. Like the larb appetizer, the subdued flavors of lime juice and palm sugar in this salad come together in harmony.
Mongkoltep Thai Restaurant has the potential to be more. I can see hints of promise in the carefully prepared proteins and the quality of the produce. But most of the dishes left me with sugar fatigue and craving more balance, more inspiration.MONGKOLTEP THAI RESTAURANT 16 N. Court Square, Newnan, 30263, 770-683-7177 Food: Stylishly presented Thai curry entrees and appetizers Service: Attentive and expeditious Best dishes: Kanom jeeb (dumplings), chicken larb, barbecue chicken Vegetarian selections: Salads, a vegetable entree called “veggie family,” sides of rice or steamed vegetables. Many entrees offering chicken, beef or pork can be substituted with tofu, but ask if any of the sauces are made with animal stock. Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, lunch noon-3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays, lunch noon- 3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Sundays Children: Yes Parking: In Lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Low to moderate Patio: No Takeout: Yes